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!
There’s always a good reason for a party. And there’s even more ways to celebrate an occasion! After writing this I will be jetting off to Australia for three weeks, and anyone who is familiar with my second book A Kangaroo In My Sideboard will know that is a BIG thing for me. (If you’re not sure why, check the page on this website.) That alone is a reason for celebration. But last week was another – I finished the first complete draft of Book Number THREE: The Titanic Document.
The whole thing happened very quietly. I’ve known exactly how I wanted to finish off that last chapter for quite some time, so like an actor waiting for his cue, along came the penultimate few lines and BANG – there it was – typed. (That’s an appropriate analogy, by the way, as I cut my baby writing teeth on scripts for performance, and I’ve been an actor for over thirty years.) I had given myself a deadline: get the manuscript completed before going to Australia, and I achieved that. Definite cause for celebration! Except – what actually happened?
I was alone. Time for a stretch, pat the dog and put the kettle on. No fist-pumping. No round of applause. No balloons – nothing.
Writing is a solitary game for a reason. It is a personal contract between the writer and the reader. There can be any number of readers, but only one writer. Except… that’s not entirely true. Which brings me to the point of this post: I may be the person who comes up with the original ideas, and then set them out in a readable format, but in between there are normally other sources of input. In my case that comes from members of my writer’s group initially, and also from beta readers – people who look at my stuff in its “raw” state, and then offer feedback that may prompt me to make further improvements to the text. Finally, there will be an independent “copy edit” by a professional writer that allows me to polish out all the rough sections and produce the version that is then published. So, in reality, there are quite a few members of a writer’s team. Or, at least, there should be. I worry when I hear of writers who plough blindly through a manuscript from beginning to end without checking to see if what they produce meets the expectations of their readers. That is all too common, I’m afraid. Slush pile stuff.
Now, I’ve reached The End – but not completely. Therefore NOT yet celebration time. In the theatre there’s normally an after-show party. Television and movie people have a “wrap” party. Yours truly had a “nap” instead! There you go – if you are one of my readers, I look forward to sharing my contract with you. Great to have you on my team!
I write books. I also read them. Sometimes I write reviews of what I read, and publish them, so that I can share my feelings with others. One such book was DESERT GOD by Wilbur Smith. Let me say immediately that I am a fan of Wilbur. I’ve read a lot of his stories and, believe me, he’s one of the best writers I know. But in publishing DESERT GOD he crossed a line, and I still refuse to read anything produced in his name since that date. Why? Because I felt cheated. And that is a terrible thing for an author to do to his readers. I’m not alone in feeling this way.
The date was September 2014. I remember it well because I was just about to go on holiday to Turkey for two weeks. There was a special promo on Wilbur’s new book just before I flew, and it was the latest instalment of his Egyptian series that had enthralled me for years. So, I bought a copy and soon got engrossed. For those who don’t know it, this is an adventure series set in ancient Egypt that cleverly weaves historical fact with the intervention of a fictitious character whose influence is far-reaching. Smith has (or had) a style of writing that seems to flow effortlessly, capturing vivid images of place and time, and so rich in description that his characters live and breathe with the reader. This is how it was for the first few chapters of DESERT GOD, but then… Oh dear! The plot took some fanciful turns. The descriptions were sketchy and the characters became two-dimensional. Wilbur Smith had evidently left the room.
I was bitterly disappointed, and although I did finish the book, curious to see how it would end (badly), I honestly felt cheated. How could this wonderful writer have lost his talent in such spectacular form? The answer can only be that Wilbur did NOT write it! I believe he started it off and then handed the whole thing over to a ghost-writer. Only he knows why. But his name is still there as author and creator. My review, published on Goodreads, was scathing.
I still receive messages today (almost six years later) from people who have read both the book and my review, and who agree with me. I’ve not received any taking the opposite view.
I would be mortified if I cheated my readership. I make special efforts to bring my drafts to a level I feel my readers will find “satisfactory” or better. I may never reach the heights of writing a blockbuster, but I do believe that is something to which I should aspire. In one sense, it is helpful to me that even the best get it wrong sometimes – and maybe I can learn from their mistakes.
At the time of writing this I am about two weeks off finishing the first draft of my second novel – a long-awaited sequel to The Murder Tree. Then follows a period of edits and re-writes that will be demanding, but ultimately satisfying. Two adjectives that describe my objective, but in my book, you can only be satisfied, if you make the demands on yourself.
Sadly, Wilbur did not.
Need to know:
I don’t just write fiction.