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Posts tagged ‘“Death of the Elver Man”’

Finding your “helpful reader”

One of the more interesting aspects of writing is the arrival of the “helpful reader”. Formally identified by Bernard Cornwall of “Sharpe” fame, the helpful reader is more knowledgeable and even more eagle-eyed than your editor at their best (or worst). Helpful readers abound in all genres and eras but they flock to historical fiction with the greatest enthusiasm. Enthusiastic and vocal, these amateur experts are attuned to the smallest slip-up and always ready to offer some helpful advice.
Now, I write books set in the 1980s which can be particularly problematic. Within living memory, the 80s have not had time to settle into the homogenized lump that is history. Those that remember the 80s all had an individual experience. Some never encountered a computer or the Internet at all. Many people flourished under the Thatcher government, enjoying new opportunities and a rapidly improving life style. We do not have history’s verdict on the 1980s and so any description, any story, must be based on individual experience.
This is not to say the research needs to be any less meticulous. I recently had the happy experience of reading a dozen submissions to a publisher and the range and depth of material was a delight but I was very disappointed by the lack of background knowledge in some stories. Perhaps I am a pedant in disguise – or a “helpful reader” held in check by the demands of my own work – but writing demands a certain cold analytic rigour if it is to be successful. Terry Pratchett once wrote it was fine to create a world with flying pigs but you’d better make sure there were a lot of umbrella factories on your planet and he’s got it right. I originally trained to work in the theatre, backstage doing lighting and sound. It was impressed on us all how important it was to get everything right. Theatre, like writing, depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not real and you have to help your reader accept the world you present. A sudden glaring error shakes them out of that suspension and you risk losing them for ever so please – check, double check and ask stupid questions – get it right!
And my own “helpful reader”? I have a gentleman who is concerned the fish in “Death of the Elver Man” don’t act the way his fish do. He would really like to take me fishing to show me what he means. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve never fished in my life (though I know a lot of people who do). I don’t think I’ll be taking him up on his kind offer but thanks anyway.

I received a compliment from a new reader last week. Well, I think it was a compliment, anyway. She came up to me in my favourite local cafe, stared hard and said, “I thought I knew you. I thought I knew what you were like.” There was a pause and she added, “Now every time I see a dead chicken, I think of you.”
If you’ve read “Death of the Elver Man”, you probably have an inkling of what she means. If you haven’t, well I’m not going to put any spoilers on here, just say I thought I was making it LESS gory. So much for all the psychology I studied.
It is a strange feeling, to know someone or something you made up is living and talking in someone else’s mind. Strange and really rather wonderful. No wonder I love my job.

Look, it’s just a story…

Please enlighten me if this is commonplace but it seems a lot of people I know or have known in the past are convinced they can recognise themselves in my books.

Now, like every writer, I tend to take a snippet of conversation, an overheard remark or an interesting personal foible and weave them in to the novels but none of my characters are based on real people – except for one who is fairly recognisable and she is quite happy about it.

There are echoes of real events too, but honestly, nothing like the events in “Death of the Elver Man” or “The Drowners” really happened and certainly not on the beautiful and peaceful Somerset Levels.

You see, it’s a story – I made it up.

Believe me when I say you are not seeing a reflection of yourself. Honest.