I came across a quote from one of my favourite painters, which set me thinking about how I write. In particular, how to tackle a couple of thorny scenes in my WIP which will see my detective protagonist do just that—decide something with his head or his heart.
If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.
I believe that readers remember incidents in a book that move their hearts, more than those that make them think. However clever your plotting, including red herrings, which makes a reader concentrate to work out what’s happening, it’s still possible to trip them up with a well-placed emotional scene. As William Faulkner said: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Ultimately, Sean Connery may have got things right:
Making the physical side of stories realistic is essential. If you’ve had experience of what you’re describing, it will show in your writing. The opposite is true, as I’ve read too many crime stories where it was obvious the author had never fired a gun or been in a fistfight or been stabbed. I know these things first-hand, not that I thought, at the time, this will help me write a story one day!
Writing dialogue is helped if you’ve got someone to bounce ideas off. If you’re alone, talking to yourself is the only option. It’s fiendishly difficult to describe conversation, as a lot of things happen apart from the words that are spoken.
Hearing voices in your head helps…it doesn’t mean you’re schizophrenic!
I act out physical confrontations, deciding on things like how many paces my detective protagonist takes, how much room is there to use his extendable baton or throw a punch and what furniture is obstructing the arrest.
At the end of the last book, my Cornish Detective was stabbed from behind with a sword. He beat his assailant to death. Lucky to survive massive blood loss, he’s recuperating, but has post-traumatic stress disorder, making him distant, argumentative and aggressive. In the new story, he’ll confront a Russian female mercenary who’s been killing for twenty years and has recently been murdering big game hunters for money. She’s armed with a two-foot-long machete. How will my protagonist react to the sight of a naked blade?
I acted it out in the kitchen, which led to me punching and kicking cabinet doors and hurling a kettle (empty) onto the sofa in the living room. I’m drawing on having once witnessed a fight between two bikers, in which the little guy threw a metal vice at his taller and heavier opponent, breaking one of his legs.
Having broken my toe acting out a scene in my dreams, I hope I’ll get the violence out of my system while awake!
Do any of you rehearse what you’re going to write.
I like to ring the changes, by reading foreign novels, so I was delighted to chance upon a best-selling debut novel The Wolf and the Watchman in my local library. Written by Swedish author Niklas Natt och Dag whose surname means Night and Day, it’s sure to be filmed.
I was attracted by the cover design featuring a black wolf and an unusual hand-written font.
Some of my favourite crime writers are Scandinavian, including Swedes Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson and Leif G. W. Persson, Norwegians Jo Nesbø and Karin Fossum, Finn Antti Tuomainen, Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason and Dane Jussi Adler-Olsson.
A crime writer I cherish is Andrea Camilleri, whose Inspector Montalbano series is set on his place of birth Sicily.
Other Italian crime writers I like are Antonio Manzini and Marco Vichi.
French authors Dominique Sylvain, Sophie Hénaff and Pierre Lemaître do a good job with the Gallic crime scene.
In the last few years, I’ve also read crime novels originally written in Japanese, which were peculiar as the social mores are so different. Kanae Minato, Seichō Matsumoto and Yōko Ogawa tales of murder in a society where saving face is of paramount importance wrong-foot the reader.
Let’s imagine that a new environmentally aware superhero appeared, maybe with companions. Their only agenda would be to save the planet. Attacking loggers deforesting the Amazon, beheading whalers, scaring the bejesus out of polluters they’d be deaf to bribes from the 1% who are only interested in making money.
They could be angelic, even a bit demonic, but being good-looking would help the marketing! The realm of imagination is a safe place, but in reality, what would happen is that some numbskull trophy hunter would take aim at our winged saviours, so they can mount their heads and wings on the wall of their den. That’s if they’ve beaten the government to the punch, for they’d capture the superheroes to weaponise them to serve their evil purposes.
Think of the food and drink companies trying to sign them up for advertising campaigns!
If you write Fantasy or Science Fiction who are your heroes?
Which fictional hero can save us in the 21st-century?
Can a superhero be homicidal, while remaining politically correct and Green?
I’ve previously mentioned which stories I like, which tend to be ‘small stories’.
As for overrated stories and authors, I’ve never been able to take to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. At a time when we’re more aware of how we’ve endangered the planet, I’m amazed that a story about whale hunting is still revered. I don’t have the life left to waste on reading Finnegan’s Wakeby James Joyce which is an experiment in search of a plot. I’m not that keen on stream of consciousness novels, the technique that Virginia Woolf used for To The Lighthouse, which I re-read as part of my preparation for writing my fifth Cornish Detective novel, which features two corpses found near Godrevy Lighthouse. Woolf described her book as a “psychological poem”. Reading about banal characters in tedious situations who never get anything done certainly did my head in—is that psychological?
Years ago, I read many of James Patterson’s Alex Cross series and some of his many, many other series and stand-alones. It soon felt like opening one can of beans after another. It isn’t writing, it’s manufacturing! Using hired gun writers to do the hard work as collaborations doesn’t shift the blame for childish prose.
I don’t read many Romances, but I tried to complete Me Before You by Jojo Moyes attempting to understand why it was so successful as book and as a Hollywood film. Its premise, of a quadriplegic seeking suicide as the ideal solution to his predicament, is repugnant. It says much about the author’s laziness and lack of empathy, that she never even met a quadriplegic before writing her tear-jerking trash. I see that the author is currently accused of plagiarism…I’m not surprised.
You know that feeling you have about a book where you think, “I don’t think I’d like this,” but then you try it and find out you were right, mentally kicking yourself for weakening? Maybe I’ve had that experience too many times. Occasionally, I read a book that provides a pleasant surprise, as with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which was a breakout debut in 2017. I wish it happened more often.
Which books do you think are overrated and underrated?
At present, I’m one-quarter of the way into writing my sixth crime novel, wondering how to give a homicidal Russian female mercenary a love interest. All of my villains have sympathetic traits, partly to round out their characters, but also to wrong-foot the reader. It’s a challenge to make this woman appealing, as she’s killed hundreds of times and is currently chopping off the hands of big game trophy hunters. She’s dominating my thoughts.
As an antidote I’ve been getting lost in the previous two stories, reacquainting myself with the lives of the detectives, so I can continue their story arcs.
Their world is more real than my own when I’m writing.
My current reading matter is taking me away to Tudor England (C.J. Sansom’s Tombland), 21st-century Nigeria (Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer), 20th-century Canada (Michael Crummey’s Sweetland) and into Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn about growing up in Britain’s poorest towns. It’s a privilege to time-travel and shape-shift in this way.
How are you getting lost at the moment?
In your writing and in your reading?
For no other reason, than it has the right title and it’s charming and romantic:
That Crime, Thriller and Mystery take the top three positions, with Romance only showing at ninth might be a reflection of many things—the socio-economic status of those surveyed, their gender, their age, their location. Also, how do The Book People distinguish between those top three genres? My crime novels include thrills and mystery (and, I don’t mean “Why the hell am I writing this?” )
I was under the impression that Romance/Erotica ruled, with Crime/Mystery runner-up. Perhaps that’s still the case when it comes to revenue from sales:
There are various hot potatoes that could cause trouble for a writer. One of the hottest is religion.
In recent years, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have brought criticism.
It doesn’t matter what age your readers are, if you take a stance on worship, then someone’s going to object. I’m not trying to start a heated debate on the Colony, but it’s undeniable that church attendance has plunged in First World countries.
He took advantage of the landscape, including Gwennap Pit.
Many Methodist chapels were built. Nowadays, they and other religions’ churches are being sold off. With falling and ageing congregations, they’re too expensive to maintain. Turned into dwellings, they find a new use:
The protagonist of my Cornish Detective series is more spiritual than religious. He sees religion as a form of love, set up to unify the population and to control them. He’s Green in his thinking and politics. His deceased wife was raised in the Catholic faith by her autocratic father, who’d joined the ‘one true faith’ for the social influence it gave him.
The serial killer in the first book was Serbian, a survivor of the dreadful Bosnian war, who’d become desensitised to killing. Ethno-religious nationalism fuelled the conflict with Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks seeking power. Atrocities were committed by each faction. The serial killer murders a Catholic priest, partly in revenge for the deaths of his family.
That’s about it, for religious content of my crime series. A lesbian detective got married, but in a secular same-sex ceremony at Bedruthan Steps, with my main character as best man…the only man present.
I was a child at the height of Beatlemania, loving the Fab Four, who my parents approved of while being drawn to The Rolling Stones, who they disliked. That George Harrison was a Pisces, born on 25th February, my birthday, made me wonder about predestination (not that I knew that term)—was I going to become a musician or at least an artist of some kind?
Fifty years later, I have, as a writer. I’ve dabbled in various art forms along the way, including playing guitar, drawing, painting and acting, as well as teaching creative arts to children.
In many ways, I conform to the birth sign Pisces: I’m impressionable, adaptable, artistic, compassionate and self-sacrificing while being melancholic, occasionally fearful and indecisive.
I’m on the fence about astrology’s merits. There’s undeniably something in it, if you only look at the effects it has of unifying and comforting millions of people, in a similar way to religion. I’ve wondered too, about how a pregnant mother’s diet and exercise regime influence a baby’s traits—which would be affected by the time of year.
Dismissed as pseudoscience by some, treated as just a bit of fun by others, some people take astrology seriously. Steven Fry doesn’t like it!
Creative Piscean writers include Dr Seuss, John Steinbeck, David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac, Victor Hugo, Douglas Adams, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Henrik Ibsen, W. H. Auden, William Gibson, Ovid, John Updike, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tom Wolfe, Bernard Cornwell, Wilfred Owen, Anthony Burgess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dave Eggers, John Irving, Cyrano de Bergerac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anaïs Nin, L. Ron Hubbard, Lawrence Durrell and E.L. James (aargh!).
With one exception, that’s illustrious company.
There’s hope for me yet….
Which writers have the same astrological sign as you?
I clenched my teeth typing that title, as ‘awesome’ is the most overused adjective in the 21st-century. Describing a pizza as awesome is ridiculous, but it’s appropriate if looking at Niagara Falls.
Awe as a word originally meant terror (think ‘awful’) but came to mean something that creates a sense of wonder. Nowadays, it’s applied willy-nilly to anything that’s good.
If we use awesome to describe wondrous or even intimidating books, I find that I’m impressed by the works of those who write simply to convey meaning and by those who create worlds with many characters. For me, the first category means poetry and what might be called ‘outsider fiction’, writers such as Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.
Here’s an awesome poem describing the human condition in twelve lines:
This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.
A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.
This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.
Complex books written by C.J. Sansom and Robin Hobb which are part of a series blow me away. I’m currently reading Tombland, the seventh story in Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. It’s 854 pages long, including a 50-page historical essay on the rebellion described. I hazard a guess, that there must be at least 125 characters in the story. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who, so I’d have appreciated a cast of characters at the beginning of the book to refer to. There is a map of Norwich and Mousehold Heath in 1549, which is interesting, but not essential.
I’m staggered by how these authors organise their plotting. The first Cornish Detective story I wrote had forty characters, which made me worry the reader would be confused.