Look at this photograph. What does it suggest to you?
Yes, it’s a tree by a river – but to my mind it is almost as if the tree is walking, possibly even climbing up the bank. The photographer has captured a moment that we all know couldn’t possibly be happening, and yet..? Most of us let our imaginations go into free-fall from time to time, and that’s no bad thing. As a creative writer, I’d say that sort of inspiration is pretty essential!
Any published author will be asked the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” So, while that curious-looking tree played no part in my fictional inspirations, I’m presenting this photo as a speculative example. If my theory is correct, what you’re looking at just might have helped create an iconic literary masterpiece.
Let’s cut to the chase: even if you are not a reader of fantasy fiction, the concept of “walking trees” may be familiar to you through another medium. How about Peter Jackson’s cinematic extravaganza from twenty years ago, The Lord of The Rings? Three films based on the fantasy novels of J R R Tolkien. This was the man who introduced us to a species of “tree-herds” called Ents, resembling trees in appearance, and taking a resilient pride in fostering ancient woodlands. One of these peculiar characters (Treebeard) played a major role in sheltering two of the Hobbits, and in rousing many of his kin to defeat the evil Orcs of Middle Earth.
So, what might have inspired the creation of Ents in Mr Tolkien’s fantasy world?
Here’s a little more background to the photo of that “walking tree”: I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of England known as the Ribble Valley. One tributary of the Ribble is the Hodder, and that is the river featured in the background, as I took that photo myself while walking on a day in early spring. This is another photo of the same tree in late summer, when the undergrowth has sprung up to disguise those leg-like roots.
That walk by the river is one which would have been familiar to Tolkien, who stayed at nearby Stonyhurst College while visiting his eldest son John, who was studying for a priesthood there during the Second World War. Tolkien was renowned for his love of nature and wooded landscapes, and was known to have written much of the first book in his fantasy trilogy (The Fellowship of The Ring) during his visits to the College. The footpath by that peculiar-shaped tree is now part of an official “Tolkien Trail” that encompasses both river and College. Treebeard and his fellow Ents did not appear until the second book (The Two Towers), so I leave it to you to judge if someone with a love of trees might not have done as I did while walking one late winter’s day. Perhaps John Tolkien alerted his father to this local curiosity, and imagination did the rest.
Isaac Newton wrote “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Which, if you use your imagination a little, is an easy analogy for two Hobbits sitting high up in the foliage of a walking tree…
At the end of December last year, I shared an insight into a personal experience over Christmas. Suffice to say a lot of people enjoyed reading about my mother-in-law’s mishap with her skirt, so here’s another tale that may provoke a smile:
A few months ago, my wife and I were fortunate to buy a static caravan at a residential site in North Yorkshire. We delight in the tranquil setting, and enjoy exploring what is a relatively new part of the world to us. Yesterday we were taking in the high street of Northallerton, a bustling market town that sits midway between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. It was just a casual visit, with no intention to purchase – or so I thought. As we passed one large store my wife glanced in the window and muttered “Just wait here a moment. Need to check something out.” So the dog and I stood outside the entrance for all of five minutes, curious to see what might emerge. Would this be my birthday surprise, I wondered? After shave? Snazzy socks? The new ABBA album?
No, it was none of those things. To my immense surprise, she reappeared clutching a large box that clearly contained an artificial Christmas tree. “What on earth..?” I started to say. “Don’t argue, Alan” she said. “We need a bigger one at home, and now we’ve got the caravan we can bring that little one here!”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my views on Christmas decs are fairly minimalist. A sprig of holly here. A twinkling set of fairy lights there, and I’m happy. Just so long as there’s plenty of grub in the fridge, which then works its way through the oven to sit proudly on my plate. Yes, I DID once play the part of Ebenezer Scrooge (to critical acclaim), but I wasn’t exactly embracing this idea of owning/storing a six-foot-tall plastic and wire ornament after successfully “downsizing” our efforts last year. It also didn’t help my being told I was expected to fund 50% of my wife’s latest impulse buy.
I grumbled a bit. Okay, I whinged a lot. To no avail. The box was duly persuaded to fit into our car, where it would await our journey home next morning.
My wife awoke looking a little troubled. “What’s up?” I enquired. “It’s that tree,” she said. “I need to have another look at it.” She went out to the car and brought the box in for examination, announcing to my surprise that she thought she might have done something silly. “I think I’ve only bought half a tree.”
“HALF?” was my stunned response. “How can you have only bought HALF a tree?” I looked at the box, a large white-frosted display of pine branches met my eyes. “Does it come in two parts, and you only picked up one?” “Look at the wording,” said my wife. I did. “6 ft Half Flocked Tree” it said. “Well, that probably means it’s only partially flocked – whatever that means?” That didn’t really help matters, so we opened the box. Sure enough, inside was half of a six-foot-tall tree – split right down the middle.
I have to have sympathy for my better half. A) She’ll never live this one down, and B) She had to take the damn thing back, to my utter delight.
Sadly, there’s a full-size replacement in the post…
There are as many ways to tell a story as there are varieties of coffee in Starbucks. I’ve written for the stage, and published in paper form, online and in e-format, while others use pictures (Instagram, Tik-Tok) or sound. (I say “others” because, while I’m a pretty keen amateur photographer, I don’t yet feature in a pictorial community of storytellers – although you can find me on Flickr.)
I was first introduced to the concept some years ago by a theatre colleague, who explained how this was a new thing from America, and was going to be very big in the UK. (How right they were.)
As a child I found my imagination fostered by entertainment on the radio, so I could relate to the idea of an audio facility exploiting the platform of the worldwide web. It’s now commonplace for many of us to “go online” for a regular part of our day, and if you’re reading this, you’ll know what I mean!
So, do YOU cast pods?
My own experience in that direction began over three years ago when, together with two actor friends, we formed JAPE Productions. I’d known Peter Franksson shared my interest in writing, and we both felt capable of performing our own stuff, assuming we could add a female voice: Jacqui Padden. The initial vehicle was THE RED ROSE TATTOO – live sketches performed radio-style – which naturally lent itself to being broadcast over the internet. The pandemic put a stop to our live shows, but the podcasts we subsequently created have never lost their appeal – or their audience.
The present project is DUMMY CABS. Peter originally wrote this as a stage play, but I saw its potential for adapting as an audio performance, or as a series for podcasting. It is beautifully written, a nod to Peter’s time working as a taxi driver in the Nineties, and the characters are drawn from life. I took on the task of tweaking the script to make it more suitable as a radio show, edited into five episodes. I am proud of the result, and particularly of the recording quality we achieved. Why not check it out yourself? Follow the link above or search “Dummy Cabs” on Spotify, Apple Music or your usual provider. While we have almost completed the present series at the time of writing, we are confident there will be more to follow.
Of course, the great thing about taxis is you can share the fare. So, if you like the ride (by podcast), please feel free to tell others how you got on. Or comment on this blog!
Have you joined?
I don’t know if it’s my generation, but as a kid I could be happily occupied for lengthy periods with a pencil and an image made from dots. They were sequentially numbered, so all you had to do was draw a line from 1 through 2, then to 3 and onwards – when a picture would miraculously appear on the page. Nothing spectacular, and hardly challenging (assuming you could recognise numbers), but presenting mum with a completed drawing vaguely resembling Donald Duck was a heck of a triumph to a childish mind.
I bring this juvenile pastime to your attention because I think we sometimes need reminding that “Everything Is Connected”.
We are currently beset by a worldwide pandemic that is making (some of) us aware of the value of good personal hygiene. We have been educated about “social distance”, and understand that breaking down boundaries risks a dangerous infection. (Which in my opinion makes a total mockery of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.)
Some connections are more important than others, and need sensitive handling. Take the UK Government (please) – leaders of an island nation with a fair old history of waging war between neighbours across the Channel – who recently tore up a political agreement/connection with those same neighbours and immediately began looking for more distant friends to cuddle up to. Fixing long-standing political feuds needs more than a shot in the arm. Personally, I’d go for a kick up the backside.
But now politics is “following the science”. We have vaccines, and suddenly being a scientist carries a lot more street cred. Connect that phrase to the other threat facing the world (Climate Change) and we await salvation from political leaders doing the unthinkable – uniting together behind a common policy to save the planet. Why? Because the scientists and Greta Thunberg tell us that is what we need to do.
I wasn’t into science at school. I never got beyond “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone”, and I dreaded visits to the dentist. But I knew when I was being told something important that could affect my health. So, I braved the nasty needles, and I brushed my teeth thoroughly, and I promised my mum I’d be a good boy when I went to the doctor’s surgery – so long as I could take a pencil and look at the comics in the waiting room. And find the pages inside with the puzzles.
And join the dots…
A golden rule for aircraft pilots is that take-offs are optional, while landings are mandatory. There’s a lot of stuff in the media just now about the holiday industry, and the impact from lists of various colours. Flights cancelled, holidays re-scheduled, governments under pressure to rescue economies while battling unprecedented statistics. Phew… let’s get away from it all.
Well, that’s what my wife and I did last month. We had a week in Madeira, safely on the UK “Green List”, and it only cost us an NHS double vaccine certificate and a free negative test while we were there. Yes, there was more to it, of course. We’d originally booked a year ago for December 2020, and postponed once to July. Then there was the online locator form paperwork and the Day 2 test on return, but at least we got away to warm sunshine while the UK began a heatwave…
The point of this preamble is to highlight something common to us all: facing up to scary situations might put unwanted pressure on our bladders – but the effort is often worthwhile.
Take our trip to Madeira.
We lost the first 24 hours due to wind: apparently it was considered too dangerous to attempt a landing. A day later, watching as our pilot banked sharply close to some impossibly high cliffs, we could understand why. It takes a strong nerve to put an aircraft full of several hundred people down safely onto that narrow ledge of tarmac. (See above about mandatory landings.)
It was my first visit to this tropical island, and one of the attractions for me was to scale the heights by cable car and sample a tourist attraction unique to Madeira: street tobogganing. This involves sitting in a tiny wicker basket fixed on wooden runners, and being pushed downhill by a couple of burly guys through narrow streets so steep, if you parked your car sideways it’d roll over. Bearing in mind my wife occasionally suffers from vertigo, this seemed like a big ask. But she placed her trust in me and took the plunge. She loved it!
Maybe the prospect of having a needle put in your arm feels too daunting, or perhaps you’re struggling to rebuild your life in some way after a personal loss. The paths we face in life can be intimidating in the short term. But take the longer view, step back a little and remember if you can what it felt like to be a child on a sledge in the snow. Once you reached the bottom of that slope, you immediately wanted to climb back to the top – and do it all over again.
There you go. Didn’t that feel good?
There are fringe benefits to writing about true mysteries. Sometimes you find you can actually touch them in some way. This was particularly the case with my first novel The Murder Tree, when I imagined what it might be like for someone from the present day to discover their personal connection to someone involved in a historic murder. It was hugely satisfying for me to be approached by one lady who read the book and realised not one but two of her ancestors had been closely involved with the nineteenth century crime! Karen Clarke has since explored her family tree more closely, and fed me with some snippets of historical information that add to my own interest in the story of Jessie McLachlan.
I’m not sure that The Titanic Document will follow a similar pattern, but already one reader has supplied a curiously personal anecdote that ties in with my observation of events from 1912. Jenny Edwards tells me that one of her distant relations is in her late 90s and still lives independently somewhere in the south of England. It appears she too had experience of a historical figure who features strongly in the Titanic part of my novel: She and her siblings were dumped in an orphanage by their father after their mother died. Upon leaving the orphanage, she went into service and got a job as a chambermaid in the House of Commons. Following this she obtained a new placement as a parlour maid, still in London, to a family in Mayfair I believe. She told me, and I quote "They had already been ostracised by London society. Their name was Ismay".
Joseph Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line that owned Titanic, escaped any blame at the British Inquiry, but his standing in London society was severely damaged. He did indeed live in Mayfair until his death in 1937 at the age of 74, leaving behind his wife and five children. If my assumptions of his part in the 1912 disaster are correct, together with his conduct during the Inquiry, it is hardly surprising that the family felt ostracised. Imagine the private conversations that would have been witnessed by that parlour maid… Now there’s another story!
Look at this photo. Recognise the subject? Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is one of the most famous paintings on the planet, so I’d be surprised if your answer was “no”. This is the original, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I know that because I took the photo myself, and a quick check online will confirm that is where the painting presently hangs. Fact.
Or is it?
We live in a sophisticated world. Our resources seem infinite, with freedom to gather information from books, magazines, newspapers and TV, or through the worldwide web. You can even speak to someone in person. Like me. I’ve been to the Uffizi Gallery and seen it with my own eyes, so that HAS to be the original fifteenth century painting on display, doesn’t it? But then, what would I know? I could only tell you what I have been told. And that information could have been false. I have no reason to doubt the claims of staff at the Uffizi, but how do we KNOW that what is on display is not a clever fake? Could the original instead be adorning the wall of some private collector, having previously been stolen to order – with the Gallery too embarrassed to admit a deception had taken place?
If that sounds more like a plot for a novel, forgive me. Such ideas are not new, and I have no intention of starting such a project. My point is simply to illustrate that most of us tend to accept what we are told at face value.
Right now, our world is suffering from the ongoing effects of a pandemic. Misinformation is rife, and lives are being lost as a result. Climate change is also a hot topic, with vast numbers of us under threat if our world leaders don’t agree on how to tackle it. But then those leaders are listening to their political advisers as well as to scientists – and again there are huge disagreements over “the facts”.
Here in the UK, many of us have been enjoying a TV drama aptly titled “Line of Duty”. The subject is anti-corruption among police officers, although the developing storyline also implicates political figures. In the real world, as I write this, the media are speculating on the potential fallout for the Prime Minister if he is found to have lied about money spent on his Downing Street apartment. Local elections are imminent, the Electoral Commission are investigating, and we are left in no doubt that there are serious questions to be answered about the PM’s behaviour. Fiction and fact – both painting a picture of lies and misrepresentation.
The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, today supplied a quote from a former minister once close to Boris Johnson: “The PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships – utterly disposable once inconvenient. It’s all about power. Facts, policies, people – they all get ditched if they get in the way.” It is easy to be cynical about what we read online, or watch on the television news. But when we are asked to elect someone based on the promises they make, we do need to consider whether we are happy to put our livelihoods in their hands. Does it make a difference if we are being lied to?
Politics aside, I believe a little scepticism is a healthy thing. Taking information at face value, on the other hand, can be risky. We’re all in the Gallery. Do we believe our own eyes? Or are we happy to accept what’s in front of us because it LOOKS like the real thing?
To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Happiness is just an illusion caused by the temporary absence of reality.”
March 2021: the month I publish my second novel, and I find myself looking back while looking forward.
On the one hand, all the work that went into Novel Number Two is (on the face of it) coming to an end. All the hours spent at a keyboard, typing the words or searching for inspiration online; all the physical research, note-taking, questions and discussion – hours and hours of my life spent in pursuit of producing a story for public consumption. Has it been worth it?
In financial terms, the short answer would certainly be “no”.
Very few authors make money and I am no exception to that rule. While the exercise of writing costs very little (assuming you own a laptop and suitable software), it is what happens after completing the first draft that draws on the bank balance. Independent writers (like me) usually hand our manuscript over to an editor, who then marks our efforts with all manner of corrections/suggestions while charging a pretty penny for his/her time. Fair enough. That process is intended to polish up our raw material and produce something more palatable for public consumption. Imagine a diamond dug out of a mine. At first it looks fairly nondescript, misshapen and dirty, but once it passes through the hands of the cutters and polishers, that same diamond will gleam and sparkle. If my editor acts as the cutter, then my publisher does the polishing – another service I have to pay for. This second stage of the process sees my manuscript put through proofing and typesetting, then printing and binding with an attractive eye-catching cover. That needs skill, time and professional attention to detail. Then there’s the marketing etc, etc. You get the picture?
So, at present I am well and truly out of pocket, which is where I should be. I got what I paid for, and now I have to wait and see if readers will buy my stuff. This, then, is where I hope the answer to the question “Has it been worth it?” will produce a different answer.
It took me around two years to write this book. During that time I changed the title from Sisters, and right now I’m contemplating whether my readers will pick up the strong siblings theme running through the story. The Titanic Document is the second adventure for my librarian character, and I felt it was time to tell my readers why Billie Vane spells his name the female way. Will that tick a box for someone? How will people react to my handling of the child abuse element of the plot? My last novel was a crime thriller, yet this time around the emphasis shifts to politics, so how will that go down? Then there’s the fictional theory I constructed about Titanic’s fate– and which surprised even me when I found it to be more plausible than I first realised. All this is now ‘out there’, and I am about to discover what the first readers think of my work. It is THAT part of the process which motivates me to be a writer in the first place. I formulated some ideas in my head and shared them with the world, and now I await the world’s reaction. I know I won’t please everyone. That’s the nature of the beast. But believe me, if just ONE person reads this story and tells me they enjoyed it, then the effort WILL be worth it.
March 2021. Note to self: the wait is almost over.
If you look at the front cover of The Titanic Document you will see the words The Truth Is About To Surface. From my author’s perspective the intention is to intrigue potential readers about what they might discover within the pages of my book. Will this truth reveal something about the sinking of that great ship? Unlikely, as this is a work of fiction. Reading the text on the back cover makes it clear that it is a political thriller, so perhaps this is an implication of how truth can be a threat to politicians?
My simple (and truthful) answer would be that it means both those things.
When looking for an angle on Titanic that I felt would lend itself to my genre, I had several options. Many authors have been inspired by her tragic history, and I had no wish to trot out one more book that trivialised hundreds of deaths in the pursuit of a fictional thrill. For me, a conscious respect for those directly affected by the tragic event would influence my handling of “The Truth”. I needed to look at arguments presented by historians and established aficionados. One opinion that intrigued me was the idea Titanic had been secretly swapped for her sister ship Olympic, and that the owners had planned an insurance scam that went tragically wrong. This was a theory championed by Robin Gardiner in his (non-fictional) Titanic – The Ship That Never Sank? The book was published in 1998 and the switching of ships theory has since been largely discredited. But Gardiner did convince me of one thing: somebody’s plans HAD gone wrong (causing unintentional loss of life), but what exactly were those plans?
Answering that important question was the key for me to build my fictional story: My librarian character of Billie Vane could do some research in that direction. All I had to do was build a plausible theory for him to find.
The politics of 1912 provided more material. Ambitious men of power in an era of turmoil between nations – the stuff of life that is as relevant today as it was in the years preceding the Great War. The American entrepreneur J P Morgan was the ultimate owner of Titanic and Olympic. He pulled all the strings, held vast wealth and influence in business circles, but found himself frustrated by those walking the corridors of Westminster. He had ambitions for dominating the profitable Atlantic shipping route, in direct competition with Cunard, and he was not one to give up without a fight. Think Elon Musk today!
If plans affecting the fate of Titanic need attribution to anyone, who better than the ship’s owner? John Pierpont Morgan was a man who sought fortune before fame, and was content to keep a much lower profile than Mr Musk. Factual accounts of his activities are scarce. To present a realistic yet controversial stimulus, I invented a boardroom scene featuring Morgan chairing a meeting that included the ship’s builder Lord Pirrie and White Star Line’s Bruce Ismay. Following the severe damage caused to Olympic while Titanic was still under construction, it was inevitable such a meeting would have taken place, and no doubt there would have been written notes. But no such record is in the public domain. My fictional version of those notes forms the basis of “The Document” in my story.
This, as they say, is where the plot thickens.
And, like all good thrillers, there’s a delicious twist!
No spoilers here, but while weaving facts into interesting strands to build a story from my imagination, I stumbled on a discovery that was NOT fictional: historical detail that appears to support my own “conspiracy” theory! I read plenty of contemporary accounts in my attempt to make the story as authentic as possible, including the records from the British Inquiry following the disaster. Within those pages are the words of Bruce Ismay himself, and at one point he makes a statement that, taken on its own, has no apparent meaning. But when read in the context of the fiction I’d created myself, has a more curious connotation. Could I have accidentally stumbled on another Truth? You can make up your own minds by reading the extract featured within the pages of The Titanic Document.
Please remember that I wrote this story as entertainment. I do not seek to participate in a serious debate on what happened to Titanic in April 1912, but I remain convinced that what I have presented for public consumption is a good basis for an argument. You can judge for yourselves, but whatever you believe IS The Truth, I do hope you enjoy the way I’ve told it.
Finally, while 28th March 2021 is the official publication date for the paperback version of The Titanic Document, there is every likelihood that retailers will receive physical copies earlier than that. It is simply a matter of when the printer delivers, which I understand can be up to two weeks before the advertised date. Don’t be surprised if (after placing an advance order), you receive your copy before the month end!
WHERE can you get a copy? Answer: any online bookstore! WHEN? As an eBook from 8th MARCH; as a paperback from 28th MARCH. (Pre-orders now being accepted)
The crime that originally inspired me to write The Murder Tree took place in 1862. But for the main part I set my story in 2010, focussing on people in present day Glasgow, Perth and Inverness, as well as across the pond in the USA. These were my fictional heroes and villain, but the settings were locations from a familiar world. When it came to my second novel, the historical events surrounding the sinking of Titanic occupy a relatively small amount of the story. For the most part the narrative is set in 2016, principally in Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside.
But I set the opening chapters in Northern Ireland in 1985. Why?
Three things: Titanic was born in Belfast; the wreck was found at the bottom of the Atlantic in September; and in November the Anglo-Irish Agreement signalled the beginning of the end for The Troubles.
Controversy and drama accompanied all three.
I felt this was the ideal starting point for a political thriller. A British agent is sent to kill a dissident Irish police officer, and to destroy documents that could threaten the peace treaty. But the full scope of the mission has not been officially sanctioned. The man who ordered it, Cabinet minister Peter Gris, has his own personal agenda, and this is just the beginning of a mounting body count.
Thirty years later, as Britain faces political upheaval from the European referendum, Peter Gris remains an influential figure in the Conservative Party. But a loose end from 1985 returns to threaten his future, and the author of a new book about Titanic appears to be the source. Billie Vane unwittingly puts his own life at risk by helping the author, following a trail that leads him back to his home city of Manchester, before an explosive conclusion at the railway station in Preston.
But at the heart of this story are the disastrous events from 1912. The question of how Titanic came to hit an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic is what intrigues Billie Vane in the first place. Was the sinking a simple matter of bad luck? Or did tragedy strike as a result of plans that were criminally ambitious?
The Titanic Document blends historical facts with imaginative fiction, and ultimately it is up to the reader to decide whether the real truth has finally surfaced.
COMING NEXT: Titanic facts and myths – and the discovery of a secret in plain sight.
Need to know:
I don’t just write fiction.