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The Hazards of Travelling – Adventures on the Autoroute

I’ve just returned from a short trip away and very enjoyable it was too. A hop across the Channel (or under it in this case), a few nights in a favourite little town and “le shopping”. But somehow it is not possible to escape everyday life especially if, like me, you are a bit of a dork.  Let me explain – I’ve always been clumsy,  especially when tired and I find myself doing things that seem quite logical to me but apparently are rather odd.  Sometimes incomprehensible to others who live outside my dyspraxic brain.

Now, I have spent a long time learning French, partly as I travel there a lot but also to prove to myself my French teacher was wrong when she wrote on my school report I would never be able to speak the language, let alone write it.  I have the Open University to thank for my eventual success by the way.  Their beginners courses are terrific and I am ridiculously proud of my Certificate in French, especially as I failed my “O” level seven times.  I can get around just fine, read the local paper (the equivalent of The Sun but hey – it’s a start) and chat to people I meet without causing them to roll on the floor hooting with laughter.  But all language is a code and every code is subtly different.

So, on the second evening we took the fast way back to the hotel, down the Autoroute.  Arriving at the barrier I inserted the card, only to have it spat back at me.  I tried again, with the same result.  We pulled off into a convenient layby and I went over to look at the machine and there was a large illuminated picture of a button with an arrow pointing towards it.  “Assistance”, it promised.  I tapped it but nothing happened.  I pressed harder, then held by thumb on it – still nothing.  After a break of several minutes when I hopped around avoiding other motorists who kept hooting and muttering some rather hurtful things I tried again, only to realize the picture was just that – a picture of a real button that was located right over the other side of the machine.

I pressed it and after several tries an irritated female voice squawked at me.  By now I was sweating and it was a struggle to understand the terse French issuing from the speaker.  My mastery of the language began to desert me as I tried to explain my predicament.  Following instructions I put the card in again, still with no success.  Suddenly a small opaque window lit up on the machine.  More squarks, increasingly impatient, told me to put the ticket into the window – and here the difference in languages becomes painfully obvious.  “Into” or “up to”.  There was a slot at the top and I dutifully posted my ticket through.

There was a hideous grinding sound and then one of those pauses.  “Where is the ticket?” the voice demanded.  Babbling and almost incoherent, I tried to explain I had posted it into the window…  Of course, there was a camera on the other side and she would need to see the ticket, verify my journey and then let me through.  Only I’d skipped that stage and consigned my evidence of payment to the shredder too soon.  With my last few words of  French I pleaded with her.  “Madame, please – it is 2 euros 60.  From Boulogne – 2,60.  I’m so sorry – please – I have the money ready…”  There was another pause and then the barrier lifted.  I swear it gave a sigh of exasperation but that may just have been Madame.  “Merci!  Merci Madame!”

We drove off into the sunset but as we left the booths I noticed the CCTV camera tracked us past the barrier and realized this had all been caught on film.  Well, I have a nasty feeling I am going to feature on the “Most incompetent drivers” reel at the next Toll Booth operators Christmas party.  I guess it is rather funny looking back but I’m not keen to repeat the experience any time soon.  I have a shiny new Atlas of France and intend to navigate away from the dreaded toll booths in future.  Hey, I’m dyspraxic so I have no sense of direction and no visual memory.  What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

 

 

Telling Stories – it’s a real job.

There are hundreds of books and web sites out there to help you become a writer – or a better writer – but for me the core of it was always telling a story. I’ve always been a story-teller, first orally and then through stories and novels.  Even when I had a “real” job, I used stories every day.  For a number of years I taught historical studies at a college of art and design and if there is any subject more suited to telling stories I’ve not come across it.

Let us be honest, if a student goes to college to study art or design they are going to be really enthusiastic about doing stuff. Painting, drawing, building models and designing stage sets – these are what inspire them. They are not going to want to sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture about someone else’s work. In fact, I could judge how well a course was going by the attendance at some of my classes. A full house of eager faces generally meant there was not a lot else going on. The exception to this was the year I spent on a theatre design course.

Designing for the stage is different from other types of design – it is interpretive. And if you’re going to interpret someone’s work you need to be familiar with it, which means you really need to read it. Sadly this is not the favoured occupation of the average art student so this was where the stories came in. I began by retelling the plots but as any writer will tell you, real interest comes when the reader (or listener) begins to identify with a character, something that comes with understanding. Good old “who-what-where-why-when”, the basis of any decent story.

I embarked on a series of talks to set the dramas in context, introducing the writers, pictures of performers, social and religious aspects and a good sprinkling of stories, the more scurrilous the better. The first afternoon I was on the stage in our small theatre and my audience was just the fifteen students from the course. We met satyrs and flying machines, incest and murder and poor old Aeschylus who supposedly died when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head. It seemed to go quite well. No-one got up to leave at least and there was no audible snoring so I decided the story format might be the way to go.

Imagine my surprise when I walked on stage the next week ready to lay bare the gory past of the Roman theatre. The auditorium was full. Not just with students either – there was a fair sprinkling of staff who had decided to pop in and see what the students were on about. At the time I still suffered from stage fright and almost turned tail. Then there was a smattering of applause – a new experience under these circumstances – and I launched into my talk. From the growth of stock characters to the awful origin of the Roman Candle, we galloped through the most brutal era in theatre history, all powered by stories of the great, the good and the bad. The students enjoyed it, some of the staff left looking stunned and had a template for the rest of the year.

So stories have done me well. They are fine things on their own account but they can carry many meanings on many levels. Any book is like an onion, layered with ideas and messages. Some come direct from the writer and some emerge later in the mind of the reader. Stories make our world and help us to make sense of it and the ability to tell stories and to listen to them is one of the finest gifts we have.

What’s in a Name? – Names and Pseudonyms.

What's in a Name“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet and this is something writers must ask themselves before they push a button to publish their first story online or – should they be so lucky – sign off on the proofs for their publisher. The name on the front cover will become their writing persona and the fact that people fiddle around with it, changing the format or using something totally different from their private name illustrates just how important this is.
History is full of people who altered their name for publication. Some, like George Eliot, chose a male pen name in order to be considered a “serious” writer at a time when anything written by a woman was likely to be dismissed as “just” a romance. Others such as George Orwell chose a pen name in order to avoid embarrassing their families with the content or subject of their work. There are cases of writers who use two names to differentiate between works in different genres – Ian Banks for example – and several writers who achieved critical success went back to the beginning, submitting new books under another name. Stephen King published a number of books under the pen name Richard Bachmann (including “The Running Man”) and more recently J.K.Rowling chose to publish her adult crime novels as Robert Galbraith.
There are many reasons for writers to publish under a pseudonym and so it is not surprising I am often asked if I write under my own name. What does surprise me is how many people think it very strange that I do. And the reason I do is because I promised my father. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he began to fade as I was completing my MA in Creative Writing. He could barely speak but would watch my face as I talked, occasionally giving my hand a squeeze or uttering a little laugh.
I spent some time looking into our family history and one day I took in a family tree and told him about some of his ancestors. He became very agitated at one point, repeatedly tapping on the names of his grandchildren and I suddenly realized that, through various circumstances, none of them had his family name. I had a small keyboard with me and I took it out and held up the work I was doing for my final project. I was going to be a writer, I told him. I would publish a book and my name – his family name – would be on the cover. It would go into the British Library and be there forever and every time someone took a copy down from a shelf in the library or a bookshop they would see our name.
He looked at me with very bright, dark eyes, then squeezed my hand and gave what my nephew calls his “serial killer laugh”. After he was gone I thought of that afternoon and I know he understood. So that’s why I use my own name. Because I promised.

Occupational Hazards of a Crime Writer

 

You may think that being a writer means I have few, if any, occupational hazards.  Certainly I can avoid many of the difficulties and occasional dangers that surround “ordinary” working life.  For example,  I have a strong measure of control over where I work, when I work and I provide all my own equipment so if I get electrocuted by my computer it’s my own damn fault.  There are however a number of potential hazards that are unique to a writer, especially a crime writer.  Take an everyday situation – standing in a queue at the shop or sitting in a cafe.  Whilst others might look around, enjoy their coffee or gaze out of the window I find myself unexpectedly hacked on the ankle whilst my partner hisses, “Stop staring like that!”  Looking around I realize several other customers are watching me warily whilst a family seated at the next table are packing up, leaving their tea and juice half-finished on the table.   Absorbed in observing and trying to capture the pattern of their conversation I have gone very still and rather too intense for comfort.

Gathering information is fraught with problems and potential hazards.   Whilst shopping in town recently I was watching the butcher sharpen a particularly impressive knife.  He knows me well and was quite happy to chat about the size and thickness of Kitchen knivesblade best suited to separate a human head from the torso (he recommended using a cleaver to sever the spine) but a couple of customers left the shop rather rapidly.  A hardened hunter went a strange colour and retreated to the back of our local sports shop whilst I talked to a very knowledgeable young man about the composition of shot-gun shells.  He showed me the types of pellets commercially available and we discussed their likely impact.  It was when we wandered into self-made shot territory, looking at the effects of, for example, small hexagonal nuts, that we found the place deserted.  Hexagonal nuts, by the way, are likely to produce a result best described as “horribly mangled”, which was just what I wanted to know at the time.

It is on my trusty computer however that lurks my greatest occupational hazard.  God forbid anything happen to my partner but should they suddenly fall down dead and the police decide to investigate me as a possible suspect I am in rather a sticky situation.  My recent searches include photographs of an autopsy suite, stages of human decomposition, adders – including locations, habitats and the strength of their venom, a table of temperatures for spontaneous combustion of various materials, head trauma and the thickness of the human skull and identification of poisonous mushrooms.  My browsing history alone would probably be enough to earn me a week or so locked up as the prime suspect.

So never mind the more mundane problems of repetitive strain injury from using the computer mouse, eye strain and headaches, jitters from too much coffee and sleepless nights as deadlines loom.  The true occupational hazards for a writer come before the writing actually begins.  And linger long afterwards.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must clean out my browsing history…

 

 

Paranoia (or Trouble in Dystopia)

It is easy, even commonplace, to live with a twinge of paranoia nowadays. We live surrounded by cameras with computers in our cars, trackers in our phones and even smart chips in our passports. We are counted out of the country and counted back in again, our phones are besieged by people wanting us to share information with us and any electrical item could betray us in a second if we do not constantly change our passwords, protect our pins and produce two forms of identification if we want to use a bank account.
So the sense of being watched, checked and monitored is not really paranoid at all is it. After all, it’s happening to everyone so we’re not being picked on as individuals – are we?

Well, I find the whole thing both depressing and fascinating. That’s why I’m a writer – take really bad stuff and think about it for months. That’s what I call job satisfaction. A while ago I had a long muse on the current state of the world and ended up playing “What if..?” As in, “What if the jet stream gets stuck round about Oxford?” or “What if the housing crisis became so bad it became illegal to occupy more than one room per person?” or – well, you get the picture. One of the things I began to muse on was the immense amount of processing power every Western person has at their disposal. I remember when a Commodore 64 was a high-end fancy games machine. You need more memory than its pathetic 64k just to boot up your old beat-up phone.

This was an interesting line of thought and I found myself blocking out a new story, a dystopian mystery book set in a slightly futuristic but recognizable Britain. It was going really well. I began to mine my ridiculously diverse education, mixing technology and psychology with a big dollop of discourse analysis and was just at the end of the fifth chapter when – disaster. Although I saved the latest draft when I looked for it the next day it was gone. Nothing remained, even from the auto-recovery. I had emailed and printed the first four chapters but number five was where it all began to happen. It had a ghost virus, a virus that assembles itself from random bits of code to sneak through firewalls and steal data from anyone who might suspect the truth.

The odd thing is, every other file was intact, but when I tried to download a previously saved copy from my memory stick that vanished too. I’m sure it is just co-incidence and I am now being paranoid but still, it seems strange. So if you’re reading this please pass it on just in case it begins to fade away…..

Attention-seeking Authors

Writing a book is one thing. Getting it noticed is quite another, and that is what makes up a good percentage of a writer’s work between novels.
There are a lot of ways to attract attention, some good and some not so good. An example of the latter is flooding the Twitter feed with messages, all saying “Buy my book!” Surprisingly this strategy has the reverse effect and is a sure way to get yourself ‘un-followed’ on a large scale. A few messages passing on news of the book, signings and so on, preferably mixed in with a lot of other stuff, is much more effective and can actually lead to some nice on-line friendships so I would recommend this approach.
It is, of course, very slow in building a following but, hey – unless you are one in a million lucky it is unlikely you’ll have much of a following as a writer until at least the third book Patience is the key here. It is so easy to get despondent and I wonder sometimes how many writers, good writers with real potential, give up as their books sink below the wash of pulp and self-published misery-lit, unread and unremarked. Local bookshops can be a life-line here. Every book can go on Amazon, of course. That’s part of the problem. How can you attract any attention in such a crowd? But a local bookshop can offer a showcase – perhaps a signing or even a reading. Sometimes they put the book in the window. That’s an exciting moment, believe me.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to speak on local radio take the time to prepare, have a couple of anecdotes ready and be sure to thank everyone who has helped you get this far. Barely 1% of writers are commercially published so just making the cut is a big deal – and none of us make it alone. Oh yes, and let people know when and where they can hear you. In my case, 2pm – 3pm on BBC Radio Tees, Wednesday 8th October (and for a week after on i-player). There, I hope you will all tune in and enjoy my choice of music and listen to us chat about life, writing and the universe in general.
There are also bad ways an author can get attention. In my case I have been setting off the security alarms in my local supermarket for the last few days. No, I’m not shoplifting. This has happened on the way in. I’ve emptied my pockets, left my bank card home, even taken off my watch but to no avail. As I go through the door all heads swivel in my direction and I curse the fact I am wearing one of my “Jennie Finch – The Moth Man” publicity T-shirts. Well, last night I had a good hunt through everything I was wearing and uncovered the culprit, a security tag in my jeans left there by the shop assistant in France. It is with some relief I can go out shopping again in relative anonymity.
Still, on the plus side, Amazon report a sharp rise in book sales and Kindles so I guess it is true to say any publicity is good publicity.

In praise of bookshops

This weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to read at the official opening of our new independent book shop, “Book Corner”, in Saltburn. Nestling between the former NatWest bank and Whistlestop Wines, it is a small but perfectly formed gem run by Jenna, an aspiring writer . She has managed to create a space that is light, colourful and welcoming and there is always something to attract the eye.
I was particularly struck by the number of mothers (and occasional fathers) who arrived with their young children in tow, every one of whom found something to buy. The sight of all these happy little faces, hands clutching their new book, gave me hope for the future of reading.
It is a brave person who opens a book shop in this age. The press is full of stories about the demise of the printed word. We are all doomed, our stories about to be digitized and handed out free of charge by pirate sites, if you believe what they say. Well, whilst I was in the shop there were customers, happy children and one woman who looked in and said, “I’m running to catch a train but I just wanted to say I’m so glad you are here.”
Of course, the Indies are great for relatively new writers. It can be hard for small presses to get their books into the bigger chain outlets but often the Indies will take a chance on us – even make a feature of us. For the first time you can buy my books in my town. Thank you Jenna.

Even writers need friends

It has been quite a month.
First, the new book, “The Moth Man”, is finished and now I’m waiting to see the proofs before it goes to press – but more of that later.
Then there was the London Book Fair and I’ve given a few thoughts on that experience in my previous post.
This week I’ve been working on producing the perfect pitch for yesterday’s “Meet the Agent” event, organized by the splendid “Writers’ Block” in Middlesbrough.
I had forgotten just how nice, supportive and welcoming writers can be. When I took the MA at Teesside University I met some wonderful people, a number of whom have become good friends but writing is a solitary affair and writers often seem -well, a bit odd. We do a lot of pacing around and muttering to ourselves. Sometimes we seem to be utterly lost in our own imaginary worlds until something captures our attention, at which point be become frighteningly attentive, homing in on the object of interest with the ferocity of a starving vulture.
It is a hard world out there with hundreds of writers chasing an ever-decreasing number of opportunities and you would think we would guard our ideas and knowledge jealously but actually in the hot-house of a ten-minute pitch my new companions were funny, open and so pleased for one another’s success.
I hadn’t realized how much I have missed that and I hope there will be another round of workshops and sessions soon. Like everything else, this depends on funding and the money to support groups in this region is extremely limited. The fact “Writers’ Block” can run a series of workshops culminating in an opportunity to pitch to two of the biggest agencies in the country is testament to their professionalism and the pool of talent with which they work and I really hope they are successful in their next bid.
For myself, I feel I have made some new friends and even someone as anti-social as I am needs friends.
Thank you to everyone who made the day so memorable and enjoyable and a special thank you to Steve, Mike, Luke, Beatrice and Jenna. And the very best of luck with your work.

Somerset Levels : A Lost Landscape

When I began writing the Alex Hastings books I started with the setting. My tutor, the excellent Carol Clewlow, asked us to write a place as if it were a character, advising us that the landscape should be central to crime fiction. Reflecting on my experiences in different parts of the UK, it was the beauty and strangeness of the Somerset Levels that came to me as I sat in the class. In fact the opening paragraphs of “Death of the Elver Man” are almost as I first wrote them that evening.

As I continued to write the books I became aware of the changes, physical, economic and political, that had worked to alter the area for ever. I was writing about a world fast disappearing. Many of the changes were possibly for the better – the moratorium on peat cutting, for example, and the tremendous work done to create nature reserves and visitors’ facilities on and around the Levels. All that has been washed away in the dreadful flooding of the past weeks. The Levels have always flooded, to a certain extent. They are a man-made landscape. But they have always endured, supporting life both human and animal, despite the worst the weather can throw at them.

With over sixty square miles of land under a sea of water, sludge and sewage, with the infrastructure, always a little fragile, swept away, it will be many years before this unique landscape recovers, if it ever does. Certainly it will not be the same – too much has been lost or damaged. The Levels are so much more than “just farmland”. They are home for people, birds and animals. They hold an extraordinary and diverse ecosystem and comprise a magical and beautiful part of our country. They need to be saved.

Radio Gaga

I’ve always been a fan of radio. I remember buying my first transistor (cast your minds back – or ask your older relatives) and glorying in the freedom to listen to what I wanted, when I wanted. This was at the time of the pirate radio stations and, living as I did on the east coast, I would sneak the radio into my room at night, listening through a tiny earpiece as the signal crackled and faded under the attempts by the authorities to jam transmissions.

It has also had its disappointments. My excitement when the first Open University course I took announced seven special “radiovision” programmes was only matched by my disappointment when a cassette tape and two dozen colour postcards arrived in the post. To be fair, the programmes were excellent and I still have the cards, small colour prints of new and unusual works of art. Still, it didn’t quite live up to the science fiction fantasy in my head.

Of course, it is all different now and the role of radio seems to be ready for another change. Whilst for many it is just background noise at work, for some it is fast becoming a way to communicate ideas and knowledge to a wider audience. Many of us get our morning news from the radio – so much more informative than the television, more detailed and with a wider range of topics. Whilst music radio is increasingly redundant – why listen to someone else’s choice of music when you can live stream your own from a service such as Spotify? – talk radio opens up the world with new voices and different lives. I firmly believe this is the future for radio. Yes, some music interspersed is great and radio can offer a chance to hear new and different music too. Whether national, local or community station, it is through the voices of other people that radio offers something unique. Something the world really needs right now. All we have to do is stop and really listen for a moment.