It isn’t necessary to have read The Murder Tree to enjoy The Titanic Document. Some of the same characters appear in both stories, but the plots and sub-plots are not related.
Wait a minute… “Plots and sub-plots”? What do I mean by that?
Okay, as the main purpose of these posts is to give readers an insight into what I do as a writer, it may be worth a word of explanation. Most storylines work on at least two layers. The surface layer is the plot that runs through the whole book, while underneath there is usually a connected theme that evolves as the main story unfolds. Take Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for example. The (surface) plot concerns a miserly man haunted by ghosts who visit him over three nights. But the sub-plot is about the poverty of people around Scrooge, and how it affects his relationship with them.
So, looking back at The Murder Tree, the top layer is the search for a personal connection between ancestor and descendant over a murder in Victorian Glasgow. Beneath that are the criminal actions of a brilliant academic using his unique talents to further his personal ambitions. One of the main characters is Billie Vane, a Manchester-born librarian working in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. He is befriended by an American girl, Chrissie Fersen, and helps with her quest to understand how she relates to a woman convicted of killing her best friend. Throughout that story, Billie is often at odds with Chrissie’s protective brother Ed, who remains sceptical of Billie’s interest in his sister. At the end of this first story, Billie and Ed become friends.
On to The Titanic Document. Six years have passed, and the friendship is now well-established. An author attends The Mitchell Library in Glasgow to promote a new book about Titanic and her sister ship Olympic. Billie and Ed both attend the talk, one from a personal interest in the tragedy and the other as a marine engineer. The two are drawn into providing professional research input for a second book by the author, unaware that a high-ranking politician is taking extreme measures to obtain a document he believes to be in the author’s possession. And he’s desperate enough to commit murder in the process.
The sub-plot here is built on the criminal activities of a former Cabinet minister. In earlier posts I’ve made no secret of my cynicism for the UK political elite. To a degree that is a result of personal experience, but when looking for material for a second novel I was heavily influenced by news articles from 2016 – the period in which much of The Titanic Document is set. One such story was the demise of Operation Midland, an investigation by Metropolitan Police into allegations of child sexual abuse and homicide. Coupling that with media accounts of personalities like Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith and Jeremy Thorpe, a toxic mix of powerful men abusing their positions seemed to me a suitable vehicle for development. I make no apologies for including sections in my story that might be labelled “adults only”, but on the subject of “abuse” I found further examples attributed to figures in the story of Titanic. I didn’t need to dig too deeply to find parallels between the political climates of 1912 and the present. In 2016, the UK voted on a referendum to leave the European Union, while America stunned us all by electing Donald Trump as President. Just over a hundred years earlier powerful businessmen with ambitions in America and the UK tried to capitalise on a developing situation in Europe that would lead to international turmoil. Not much difference there.
That then is the “Who” (Billie, Ed, an author, the police and some dodgy politicians), and the “What” is the plot and the sub-plot. I’ve also touched on the “When” – 1912 and 2016 – but in the next post I’ll explain why historical events in 1985 also played a key part.
By the way, THE TITANIC DOCUMENT is now available to pre-order online at all the big bookstores – including Waterstones, W H Smith and the new Bookshop.org. (Oh, and Amazon, naturally!)
It has been over seven years since I published The Murder Tree. At that time I had no plans for writing another novel. This was a one-off, an outlet for a story that had been nagging away at my brain for years. That might have been my one and only attempt at fiction, especially as the next project on my To Do List was a non-fiction piece from my own family history. But the reaction from readers of The Murder Tree was so warm that I knew a second novel deserved serious consideration.
So, here it is.
Right now, The Titanic Document is only weeks away from publication. In this post I want to explain a little about the process of bringing my second novel to print, and over the intervening period I will tell you more about the story itself.
But first, why has it taken so long?
The simple answer is: I write slowly! Every writer has his or her own methods. Some (like me) need time for ideas to formulate, and have distractions in their lives that often pull them away from the keyboard. Sometimes that link between brain and fingers NEEDS to be broken to preserve a semblance of normality (or avoid domestic strife). Others apply themselves every day, treating their writing hours like a job and being supremely disciplined about it. L J Ross is an independent author at the top of the Amazon rankings who regularly trots out several books per year. That works for her, but a conveyor belt mentality would never do for me. I prefer to treat my work as a craft proceeding at its own pace. Then there’s another element I feel that separates my style from Ross’s: teamwork.
Authors can be solitary individuals, and today’s technology allows a writer to produce a document they can publish themselves using Amazon’s proprietary software. No middle-man. Quick and relatively easy. If you have the creative skills, the dedication and the technical mindset that Ross clearly displays, you can make a success of being a one-woman band. I did something similar when I published my mother’s memoir (A Kangaroo In My Sideboard) through Amazon in 2018. But the major difference between me and L J Ross is that, in writing both The Murder Tree and The Titanic Document, I incorporated a team of experts at every stage.
That process did slow things down, but for me, feedback on my draft work was hugely important. Periodically I would receive critique from fellow writers on the text I produced. Then I would make adjustments, or re-write sections. Even when I’d finished the whole story, I employed a professional editor to provide an in-depth analysis that induced further changes before starting the publication process with Troubador. Their professional services (typesetting, design, marketing and distribution) can easily take around six months, even longer for the big traditional publishing houses like Random House, Penguin or Harper Collins. All these companies (including Troubador) have high standards, and the quality of the books they put on shelves in our shops and libraries is what I aim to match.
So, it all takes time.
I’ll end this post with a link to Troubador’s shop window. This is where you will find the paperback version of my second novel, and because of the present restrictions imposed around Covid-19, it’s a useful place to obtain a physical copy in future. Have a look around HERE. The standard of the products on offer is second to none, and each one only gets there after months of careful application by a team of skilled professionals. I’m proud to work with people who care as much as I do about quality – but, at the end of the day, it is the reader who will judge the end product.
In around eight weeks’ time…
COMING NEXT: Who, What, Where and When? The Inside Story of The Titanic Document.
There is something to be said for Mother-in-Laws at Christmas. Mine (Edith) is 88 and becoming increasingly frail in recent years, but her contribution to 2020’s seasonal event was nothing short of spectacular. Before I tell you how she brought so much laughter to our Lockdown Festivities, a short prequel:
Edith had been a regular visitor to ours for Sunday dinner, when I would make the half mile drive to my brother-in-law’s house to collect her from her granny annexe. Last February, oblivious to how the world was about to be torn asunder, we’d all enjoyed my wife’s ample roast, and it was time to take Edith back home. I stood on the driveway holding the passenger door open, took mum’s handbag off her while she placed one foot inside the car – and then found myself pushed violently backwards as my elderly charge lost her balance. We both fell to the ground, Edith on top as I had the presence of mind to cradle her head from hitting the concrete. The result could have been worse – a bruised ego for me, but a nasty broken ankle for my passenger.
Since that fateful day, Edith recovered well, but like so many people of her age she was frustrated by enforced isolation and extremely limited excursions outside her home. Christmas Day 2020 would be her first return visit, so I was understandably nervous of my duties.
But it started well enough. I couldn’t help smiling when I collected her. She was standing there, dressed all in black apart from a fluffy white hat that somehow made me think of Cruella de Ville. The hat was a Christmas gift, and not her normal choice of headgear, but what the heck? I noted with slight concern she was wearing a long skirt that came halfway down her calves, possibly restricting her movement. Hmmm… But we managed the first leg of our expedition, reaching the car without incident.
Our driveway is on a slight incline, potentially hazardous for elderly passengers entering or egressing vehicles, so I parked up on the level ground in front and walked round to assist Edith on the final leg of the journey. What came next could have been straight out of a Christmas Panto. Bearing in mind the previous calamity ten months ago, I was playing it extra careful. Guiding Edith to grab the edge of the door with one hand and my arm with the other, I was relieved to get her to stand with both feet on solid ground. But then it happened: Edith’s long black skirt dropped around her ankles!
Life, eh? The circle was complete. Mother-in-Law’s return was a total triumph. I did help Edith restore her dignity by pulling the skirt back up to its correct position (hem just below the knee) – but I was laughing my head off while I did it. To give the old girl her due, she handled it well. We got her safely in to the house, where she had a lovely meal before snoring gently under the noise from the telly. And yes, I also delivered her safely home, a smile on her face as if she’d planned the whole thing.
2020 has been quite a year, and I don’t apologise for beginning this post with a non-original phrase. I’m a little rusty, not having posted anything here for what - two months? That’s a little unusual for me, but then it all comes back to that phrase about Fact and Fantasy. Let me explain:
We’ve reached a time of the year when, in between the rush to be ready for Christmas, we tend to look back on the events of the year. I’m no exception to that, and as I’ve spent those last two months referred to above catching up on all manner of tasks, I’ve now started to count up the good stuff from 2020 against the bad. I’m one of the fortunate ones, having completed writing two books (*), enjoyed trips to both Crete and Australia, and spent time with the people I love. Against that, like many others, I have seen much of my normal expectations in life disappear. The virus caused that, but at least I was never close enough to personally fall victim.
My initial impressions in March were of a distant threat that was probably no more dangerous than a strong dose of the flu. My latest experience in the last week was of the death of the father of a close friend, a resident in a care home. Some lessons from life are the toughest to learn.
The coronavirus epidemic has been an education for us all. I’ve learned a lot. The most important one I will take with me into 2021 is the amount of influence politicians have over our lives. I was in Australia when the various governments around the world began to place restrictions on our daily lives. I saw what happened there, and then I left to endure the shambolic knee-jerk nature of decree exercised in Britain. It happened alongside the diminishing time for the UK to negotiate a trade deal with the European Union, another event which we hoped our political governors would handle with due care and urgent responsibility. No such luck!
So, this is where I come to the fact and the fantasy.
This year I can look back and realise how easy it is to be led by a fantasy and ignore the facts. That virus thing so far away is now ever-present around me, and affecting everything I do. I wrote a book that highlights the damage done to us all by politicians – a fictional story, but one based on facts. I watched the television news and noted how a US President could be so openly delusional, believing his own fantasies, while millions of Americans placed their trust and still gave him their vote. And here in the United Kingdom I saw the trust placed in our own government to do the right thing betrayed over and over again.
But, on the plus side, this year I’ve learned the power of a smile – even from behind a mask. I’ve seen communities come together and help strangers. I’ve found that people in other countries are just like us, and I know how good it feels to open up and to share our knowledge and our resources.
There’s a New Year ahead. Let’s all go into it better prepared from what we learned in 2020. We need to turn the fantasy of a better world into reality. And that’s a fact.
* Three Bears and a Jackaroo was published through KDP in June, and The Titanic Document is currently with my publisher Matador, due for publication in March 2021.
Well, it depends on what we’re talking about, but as I’m both a reader and a writer, the details I’m referring to here are the ones that enhance reading matter. Putting enough detail into a manuscript was the one thing I worried about when I started to make the transition from theatre scripts to books. Prior to writing my first novel I was accustomed to almost exclusively using dialogue to shape a story, and so I had a lot to learn. I knew what books I enjoyed reading, which authors I held in high esteem, and I knew I had to try and emulate their standard. So, for me, the detail did matter.
Look at the work of Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. Think about the intricacy of plotting by those authors. Both used their medical skills from earlier professions to great effect, but the discipline they learned as a chemist or doctor also applied to the way they wrote. Their research was exemplary, and they put great care to make their characters recognisable as real people. Miss Marple made a point of applying her knowledge of human characteristics to understand those caught up in criminal activity. Reading about those incidents helps us all relate to them, making it easier to lose ourselves in the story.
So, let me tell you a little about how that applies technically for a writer. The detail in my head when I started out writing both my novels was sketchy at first. I knew the basic framework for beginning, middle and end. I had some ideas for particular incidents I wanted to include at some point, but I let the prose develop naturally. Many writers will do the same, often working through to the end, and then going back through their first draft to add extra layers of plot, or to take something out. But mainly they will put in little bits that complement the story, linking elements of plot or characters to enrich the detail. I tend to find myself regularly reviewing as I go along, and then look at the whole thing for further tweaking once that first draft is complete. Most writers do something similar, or… do they?
Yes, there are those that forget details, or just can’t be bothered – especially if they get the sales anyway. I know of one Amazon bestseller who churned out a new book every four months for the last five years. That kind of output is like a factory producing packets of cereal, and if you like that sort of thing, then fine. I read one out of interest but would never buy another as I found both the characters and the plotting to be too light on detail. Another author I encountered wrote a scene which just didn’t make sense. The story was building to an exciting climax. The heroine thought she was alone in an old house deep in the countryside when the killer broke in. She fled into the loft space and crept along in the dark hoping she could find a way down into the adjoining property. She could hear the bad guy behind her, but was relieved to find a hole just big enough to climb through. She swung her legs down first, aware that the villain was just seconds behind her. Then the writer ramped up the tension big time when she became stuck in the hole, staring up at her prospective killer. Now guess what part of her body got stuck. Hips? No. Shoulders? No. Answer: her HEAD. I know, I know. She must have been a very strange shape!
So, details do matter. Because if a writer doesn’t get them right and puts down something that (ahem) simply doesn’t fit, then it can ruin what otherwise might have been a decent story. Another point: Would I want to read any more stuff from that author? No. So no more sales there.
Details are important. I’ve just caught up on watching all five series of “Line Of Duty”. What terrific writing! The care and detail that went into making powerful drama out of each episode starts with the writer, Jed Mercurio. The standard of his scripts is matched by the actors and everyone working in production – and the success of the series is down to the lavish attention that is given to make the storylines as authentic as possible. Good writing is all about detail. Average writing skimps on it.
I’ll leave it to my own readers to judge where my books sit. Any observations so far?
A BLANK PAGE.
There is nothing more inspiring for a writer than that. Because it just demands to be filled.
But if I’m honest about the inspiration for writing The Titanic Document, it really comes down to two subjects: The Titanic and politicians.
I watched the 1958 movie A Night to Remember at the impressionable age of thirteen. A huge liner sunk in the middle of the Atlantic with only a third of those aboard surviving. Horrific – and then they told me it actually happened. A true story. WOW! The powerful nature of that event remained with me from the mid 1960’s.
Twenty years later, with the ship once again making headline news after its discovery by Robert Ballard, I was working for a provincial newspaper and received a copy of Titanic – Triumph and Tragedy by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas. It was a magnificent work, full of facts, figures and stories about the construction and the subsequent disaster. Around about the same time, my personal life was going into meltdown over my first wife’s adulterous affairs. Not a story for these pages but, to cut to the chase, one result of those affairs was a protracted argument with the British Government. It went on for years, and only came to an end after intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. I won the battle, but my personal encounter with government ministers left a bad taste.
It wasn’t helped in more recent years when in 2005 I helped champion a cause concerning my children’s primary school. Here I found myself up against the Education Department, who also failed to impress with their attitude. My experience with the Westminster crowd has therefore been more intimate than the average person, and I’ve not even touched on my years as a civil servant and union activist!
Okay. Titanic and politicians. I’ve had an interest in one, and less than happy experiences with the other. But what made me want to write a whole book around them?
The success of The Murder Tree demanded a sequel. My fascination with Titanic provided a historical back story in a similar fashion to Jessie McLachlan’s trial for murder in 1862. But I needed something “present day” to include in a contemporary thriller. In The Murder Tree I had a theme of futuristic science, with a gifted psychologist as my villain. In 2016 the UK was reeling from the result of the EU Referendum, and the exit of David Cameron as Prime Minister. The Metropolitan Police were also in the news as a result of two major investigations into the sex-lives of celebrities and politicians, sparked by the activities of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith.
Politics and Sex? Not a pleasant mix for some, but I looked no further.
Real life, no matter how raw, is always a source of inspiration.
And UK politicians.
Because both feature heavily in THE TITANIC DOCUMENT.
I lived through the Seventies and Eighties, hence I remember certain newsworthy events from that era pretty well. For example, I remember hearing how a prominent politician and leader of the Liberal Democrats had been sent to trial in 1979 on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder. Jeremy Thorpe’s fall from grace was more recently depicted on screen by Hugh Grant in a TV mini-series entitled “A Very English Scandal”. In 1979 we knew nothing of Thorpe’s sexual tastes.
Same era, same political party – and another “larger than life” character: Cyril Smith, MP for Rochdale. I remember being impressed with his blunt speaking, his sense of humour, and his ability to make fun of his size (over 400 pounds weight). A fellow northerner with a BIG personality – and a close friend of Jimmy Savile, who in turn got on very well with a certain Margaret Thatcher. Savile’s TV career was soaring throughout the Eighties. But as we were to learn later, so many of those close to him were turning a blind eye to his sexual perversions. It was a different world back then.
In recent years we have seen investigations into sexual abuse reported in the media, and the names of Savile and Smith achieved a different kind of fame. Their crimes against children in particular were horrific, and it was the freedom with which those men operated that encouraged me to create the character of Peter Gris for THE TITANIC DOCUMENT.
While not based on any individual, my fictitious politician begins the story in 1985 as Margaret Thatcher’s newly appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – immediately before the wreck of Titanic was discovered by Robert Ballard. That event in turn occurred only weeks before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November. Peter Gris would therefore have been actively concerned with a treaty intended to bring an end to “The Troubles” in the place of Titanic’s birth. Using my writer’s philosophy to ask the question “What if?”, I endowed this high-ranking politician with select characteristics from each of Thorpe, Smith and Savile. (He’s not a nice guy – but on the surface??)
So, now you know a little of the background to the key “villain” of the story. Far-fetched? I would say not. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to prove that such a powerfully-placed person could not exist in present-day political circles.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Next, I’ll share some personal details on what influenced me to write THE TITANIC DOCUMENT.
It’s a strange old world, isn’t it?
The headlines for 2020 have thus far been dominated by pandemics and politicians. But wherever news is reported in the world, there are tales of personal tragedy, or of remarkable human kindness and humility. We are a fragile race, but we are capable of far more than we realise.
Early in the twentieth century the world first learned of a tragic event involving the deaths of several hundred people. While there have been many more events since involving similar (or even greater) loss of life, there is something about the story of Titanic that is particularly enduring. It is a classic tale, producing individual stories of heroism, romance, greed and potential conspiracy – as well as an enduring enigma. It should never have happened but for a brush with nature. An iceberg proved more than a match for the skills of the men who built her, or who steered the great ship on that fateful April night in 1912.
They made a movie of the whole thing in 1958 – A Night to Remember. I watched it on television less than ten years later, an impressionable teenager shocked that this was not just an ‘action pic’ but a true story. Who would have thought then that I would one day write my own book inspired by that event, or that I might have discovered WHY it happened in the first place?
A strong claim to make? Possibly. Yes, I could be wrong. But I do know I’ve included a NEW theory on the sinking in my book THE TITANIC DOCUMENT. It suits the fictional elements within my story, but as a result of my research I can honestly claim to have presented an argument explaining the disaster that I have not yet seen published.
But you can judge soon for yourself. The manuscript is finished, edited and proofed. The publication process is under way. I just hope the journey I set out on nearly three years ago reaches its end without further incident. There’s been all manner of obstacles along the way, the waters have been choppy at times, but hey – what a voyage it has been!
I’ll tell you more later.
There’s a page on this website describing MY EPIC AUSSIE ADVENTURE! It’s a Blog page, and it describes my experiences in South Australia and Sydney just as the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping across the world.
As a writer, it made sense to me to publish those experiences in book form, so my third publication is entitled Three Bears and a Jackaroo! – a light-hearted travelogue in Australia. I wanted to make it available free of charge, but Amazon’s terms and conditions only allowed that for a five-day limited period after publication in July. From October 2020 the period of exclusivity on Kindle expires, the eBook is then available to download FREE from this website. Two versions are available (EPUB and KINDLE) so make sure you select the correct version for your eReader! FOLLOW THIS LINK TO THE DOWNLOAD PAGE
In my last post for this blog I was celebrating the completion of a writing project (The Titanic Document). That was just before I set out on what began as a three week visit to Australia at the beginning of March, but got extended… Since my return, I have completed another writing project – a separate blog describing My Epic Aussie Adventure.
Most people like to take home souvenirs of their holidays, and I’m no different. So, here’s a little insight into what I brought back:
Books, naturally. Then there were some colourful and unusual shells to remind us of those wonderful beaches. The mandatory T-shirt, of course. But these are just the physical things. On their own they help to invoke pleasant memories in the same way as the photographs I took. Writing my special blog also helped with that! Mentally, well… I came back with something I hadn’t expected, and that’s what I wanted to touch on here.
Let’s wind the clock back a bit. The initiative for my trip down under was to “follow my parents’ footsteps”, and explore the places where they lived for a brief few months seventy years ago. I did that, and it was wonderful – not the least because I was able to meet people there who had actively helped in research for my book A Kangaroo In My Sideboard. That was a rewarding experience in itself, but I came away with something more: a new perspective.
I discovered how universally welcoming and friendly the Aussies are. Throughout our month-long stay we came across people with a ready smile and a genuine “happy to help” attitude: The receptionist; the taxi driver; the baker; the woman in the supermarket; the man in the restaurant. You’ll find many examples in my other blog. It made me realise that, despite the huge letting down my parents suffered at the hands of one Aussie farmer, they must have come across so many others who gave them moral support and practical assistance. I’ve described a few of these in my book, but the big souvenir I came away with was to find myself in a similar position to mum and dad (stranded in the same country), wondering how I was going to get home – and receiving unreserved friendship and generosity from the locals.
The world has changed enormously in the last seventy years. Technology has driven that transition, but I honestly find it reassuring that (at heart) people are still the same. We all face fears and doubts, especially under the impact of a world pandemic, but the experience of travelling halfway round the globe has taught me that we can still make things better by supporting each other with a smile and a thought for how we can help others.
When we come out of lockdown, there are going to be so many opportunities to do just that. I’ve got my souvenir, and it’s going to help me in the future. Now I’ve shared it with you, what do you think? Could YOU make a positive difference to another person?
Give someone a G’day!
Need to know:
I don’t just write fiction.