Sunday, 17 June 2018

In Praise of Dots.

“He through his manly arms around her, carried her to the bed and …”

That was how scenes containing people, you know, DOING IT, used to end. Dot dot dot. Leaving school girls giggling and fantasising about what the dots actually implied.

Then liberated honesty intervened, the dots disappeared and we readers were dragged under the covers with the lovers, in all possible glutinous detail. Personally, to be honest, I prefer the dot dot dot. It’s not that I’m prudish (although I probably am). It’s just that I don’t want everything, down to the minutest detail, thrust in my face, so to speak.

I had a review recently, a good review for which I am very grateful, but I was brought up short by the suggestion that my book contained a graphic description of a rape. It’s true that there is a rape scene in the book, but I have always thought my style of writing was implicit rather than explicit. Implicit about everything, not just the naughty bits, or the violence. I don’t even describe a character’s appearance in any great detail, unless it’s necessary to the plot. I expect the reader to fit in a face of his or her choosing, because I see a book as a collaboration between writer and reader. Both should have an input, with readers applying their imagination to the words. Of course I give general suggestions, but I want my readers to be painting their own pictures as they read my books.

I never took a creative writing course, but I was brought up with a copy of Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men. Comedy is by far the best way to learn how not to do something and I learned a great deal about how not to write. In The Tin Men, Hugh Rowe is a would-be writer, attempting his first novel. Much of the book is taken up with him getting over the initial hurdle of composing reviews of his own work and a biography to accompany his photo (with pipe and skilful backlighting). When he finally embarks on the book itself, he worries about just how much detail to include in his description of a character.

“…Her ears were small but firm. Her elbows, coming at the mid-point of her arms, looked almost like a young boy's…

Again, Rowe stopped. Navel, knees, calves, toes, thumbs, shoulder-blades – still all undescribed! Not a word yet of her height or of any identifying marks! If he didn’t get it all down, wouldn’t every reader in the land immediately leap to the conclusion that she had knobbly knees or three thumbs or a deformed navel?”

My preference is to leave the reader with those intriguing possibilities, and trust them to play fair.

My rape scene. Yes I think I do describe quite graphically what my character is feeling, emotionally, and the thoughts of defiance going through her mind, but I would say I am not at all explicit about what is happening physically.

Question. Is graphic the same as explicit?

 My aim is to paint a picture graphic enough for the reader to enter into the scene and participate in the emotion, by letting the imagination loose. Explicit writing, on the other hand, stoppers the imagination by spoon-feeding the readers with such precise detail that no brain work is required at all. It defines and dictates and deadens. I would compare it to the difference between television, presenting you with the scene, and radio, making you picture it for yourself.

Imagining what is going on through the half-open door is more exciting that kicking it wide open and having the whole scene floodlit. The creature in Alien is most terrifying when it has not yet been seen. There is so much to be said for imagining. Much better to imagine, for yourself, precisely what he did when he put his…

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The House that Time built

I like houses. People who have read Shadows or A Time For Silence will have guessed that. I like the way they wear history, covering it up with the years, changing with each new owner, but never quite concealing what came before. I like the idea of slow evolution in brick, stone and timber, reflecting the slow evolution of human affairs. I like it so much I wrote a short story (in my collection, Moments of Consequence) following the history of a cottage back, through glimpsed stories of its inhabitants, to prehistoric times – because the great thing about a country as settled and sorted as Britain is that virtually every brick is laid on something that was laid before.

The same deep roots are hinted at in Shadows, with the decaying Pembrokeshire mansion, Llys y Garn. It seems to be a genteel Victorian house, but there’s a medieval great hall tucked behind it, and the ruins of a tower, and in its fields lie evidence of a bronze-age settlement.

My new novel, Long Shadows, goes back, in three hefty steps, The Good Servant, The Witch, and The Dragon Slayer, through the history of the house, or rather, the history of the property bearing the title Llys y Garn, because in each story it’s a different house occupying the same spot.

In The Good Servant it’s the mansion portrayed in Shadows, with its mock-Gothic stained glass, its pseudo Tudor staircase and its servants’ garrets, but it’s the house as it was in its heyday, when money was free-flowing, servants were cheap and weekend shooting parties gathered to butcher the wildlife, not as it is in Shadows, with dry rot, rising damp and general neglect. The Great Hall, half ruined in Shadows, is already relegated to hay store and workshop in The Good Servant.

In The Witch, there is no sign of the Victorian rebuild, nor even the Queen Anne remodelling that came before it and survived only as a damp-spotted watercolour.

In 1662 Llys y Garn is a rambling early Tudor edifice, with gatehouse and courtyards, grandly impressive in its time but already old-fashioned and crumbling by the restoration of Charles II. It has embraced the Great Hall, panelled by earlier Jacobean owners, but little of it is used except, on rare occasions, the ancient solar, the upper room overlooking the walled garden. The Medieval tower is still there too, a memory of more difficult and bloody times, but how long it will stand is up to the whims of nature – or darker forces.

In The Dragon Slayer, even the Great Hall and the tower have not yet been built. Llys y Garn is a jealously guarded patrimony of hunting lands, unproductive fields, grazing for cattle, and a cluster of thatched timber halls and hovels for people and beasts, filled with smoke and delusions.

There is, alas, no story to accompany the 3000-year-old hints of roundhouses in the upper fields, but at least the builders, working of the restoration of the property in Shadows, do their best to remedy that failing by reconstructing one.

always remember to remove scaffolding before thatching the roof.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Mines and daisies - The Unravelling.

I’ve written about families rocked by crime, about hidden secrets and domestic violence, where the criminals are close relatives or complete strangers, but I usually accept the normal assumption that they will be adults, even if children can be their victims. In The Unravelling I broke free to write about criminal intent among children.

Karen is a woman disturbed in middle age by suddenly reawakened memories of long forgotten friends. She’s forgotten a great deal, maybe with good reason. What happened when she was ten? What did she do?

When it comes to choosing a villain I don’t go for manic masked psychopaths lurking down dark alleys armed with axes. I prefer using people who seem perfectly ordinary. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t psychopaths, because,  away from Hollywood and out in the real world, psychopaths are often superficially charming, good at playing the social game, and not remotely violent. What they do have is a deep-seated indifference to other people’s feelings and to social norms of right and wrong.

There’s a suggestion that there’s a psychopath gene, which implies that it’s a condition people are born with. Nature rather than nurture.  Instinctively, I lean towards nurture rather than nature, to the idea of people being moulded by circumstances, educated and encouraged into constructive avenues if they are lucky, or corrupted and brutalised if things go bad.

When toddler James Bulger was tortured and killed by two ten-year-old children, I was as sickened and horrified as everyone else, but I was also shocked by a pervading view that the killers were somehow doubly evil because they were children. Was there an assumption that it wouldn’t have been so bad if the killers had been adults? I can’t understand that. It's adults who have no excuse.

In The Unravelling, I start on the premise that children are not born little angels like Oliver Twist, or evil imps who must have Satan driven out of them.  They are born totally amoral, without any concept of right and wrong, perfect psychopaths, like Stewie in Family Guy, intent only on pursuing their own interests. Good is whatever gives them what they want and bad is whatever gets in the way. Children gain a concept of right and wrong by learning, from family, from neighbours, from school or church or TV, what is acceptable and what is unforgiveable. Without being taught, what drives them is pure curiosity, without limits. Children pull wings off insects, and wrench arms off their dolls to see if they can. They eat pills that are left unattended because they might taste nice. They can be cruel, spiteful, manipulative, cowardly and everything else we consider  bad because they haven’t yet learned to be otherwise. They can do unspeakable things in a state of pure innocence, without grasping that they are wrong.

They also dissolve the lines between reality and imagination because they are still learning to interpret the signs and discover what reality is. Is the neighbour really a witch? Is there really a lion in the wardrobe or a bear under the bed? Is there a troll lurking under the footbridge? Is a man who offers you sweets and a lift in his car good or bad?

Childhood is a minefield covered with daisies and children, as they cross, invariably tread on at least one or two mines. A learning process full of terrors as well as enlightenment. Those children grow up and take their experiences with them, formed and informed by them. Hopefully they reach adulthood having learned all the right lessons, but would it be a wonder if memories of their own terrors or their own actions leave them traumatised for life. It’s surprising any of them make it. Which is why, in The Unravelling, not many of them do.

published by Honno 2016

Thursday, 10 May 2018

History in the remaking

I’m generally listed as a crime writer – psychological crime, admittedly, so there’s no detailed police investigation, just people muddling through and falling apart – but my books have always been part historical novel. The first three, although following contemporary women, harked back to earlier eras. Not necessarily very distant eras. The Unravelling links back to 1965/6 and Motherlove only to 1990, but A Time For Silence delves into the 1930s and 40s, and that is now historical to most people. My fourth book, Shadows, is set solely in the present day, but with sinister echoes from the past and those were the inspiration for my new book, Long Shadows, which explores those forgotten mysteries in 3 novellas set in periods that are now way beyond the memory of anyone living.

I studied history at university. It was only when I started the course that I realised I was studying the wrong history. Why didn’t they tell me that Medieval history would be about quarrels over succession and land grabs, the battle of Tenchebrai or the terms of the treaty of Kingston? I’d assumed it would be about the effects of the Black Death, the development of fairs and markets or the decline in feudalism. Which you find most interesting, or boring, depends on personal taste, but it was only when I’d started at university that I fully appreciated I’d been brought up on economic and social history, rather than political history and the doings of Kings. I know Kings had a huge effect on history – you only have to look at Henry VIII’s decision to take us out of Europe – but I feel far more for the little people at the bottom of the social pile – my ancestors – dealing with the traumas of life in a world governed by others.

So when I write historical fiction, that’s why it’s about those little people and not the headline makers recorded in chronicles, braodsheets or newspapers. The fact that I don’t then have to research the exact details of a well-recorded life might be an added bonus, of course.

The central character in my latest book, Long Shadows, is the same one that occupies centre stage in Shadows, namely the house of Llys y Garn, and it offers a setting for me to disappear into the past without involving monarchs and their kin – though one or two do get a mention. The house and the rooks that haunt it have no notion of kings and queens, but they do take note of the lesser folk who live there, and who leave memories of their sins and tragedies enshrined in its stones.

So I have a story, The Good Servant, set in the late Victorian period, focussing on the unloved and unlovely housekeeper, Nelly Skeel, who fixes her lonely affection on the unwanted nephew of the house, another lost soul – but one determined to stay lost. It's a study of Victorian class and dependency as well as the corruption of desperation

Then I have a story, The Witch, set in the reign of Charles II, focussing on Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Devereux Powell a gentleman who has wealth and ambition but no ancestors of note - unless his mad mother is descended from the Devil. The old woman's accusations against her granddaughter lead Elizabeth to wonder whether the Devil, if not God, will answer her prayers. Never bargain with the Devil.

Lastly, I have The Dragon Slayer, the story of Angharad, set in the early years of the 14th century, in a conquered Wales whose sons are obsessed with petty quarrels and rights and whose daughters must choose whether to face the brutal fate of women with the pious resignation demanded by the church, or with  defiance.


At least it gave me a chance to squeeze six hundred years of history into one book.

Long Shadows 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Living in Interesting Times

There is nothing quite so interesting as being on the very brink of signing a contract with a publisher for a second book, only to discover that said publisher has just gone into liquidation.

Actually, there are probably quite a lot of things far more interesting, but this was sufficient for me.

Endeavour Press published my fourth novel, Shadows, last year. I was on the point of signing a contract for a second when word came through that Endeavour had gone into liquidation. Which was, I thought, a little bit of a nuisance.

Fortunately, it turned out that the liquidation was voluntary, which meant no one was going to lose their royalties and could keep their titles ticking over, if they so chose. The directors of Endeavour were going their separate ways and authors could choose which one to go with. I've gone with Endeavour Media, which will continue to publish Shadows as an e-book and I have now also signed a contract for the e-publication of its companion, Long Shadows.

However, I thought I would use the opportunity of total chaos, to rethink the paperback publication. Endeavour concentrates on e-books and deals brilliantly with them, but though they offer a paperback option, it is available solely through Amazon. I may be wrong, but I suspect that a lot of people who prefer paperbacks to Kindles would really like to buy from good old-fashioned book shops, while they still exist. So, heart in mouth, I have decided to bring out the paperbacks myself, through

It does mean that my books are now both conventionally and self-published. I wait to see whether I've opted for the best or the worst of both worlds. Am I mad? Probably, but I am willing to play with fire, and since one of the bonuses of self-publishing is that I can choose my own covers, here are my brand new paperback covers.


and to compare and contrast, here are the Endeavour covers for the Kindle versions.

I shall not ask you to vote, but the books are available here.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Sunny noir at Llandeilo

Just back from Llandeilo, where I spent a very enjoyable weekend being An Author, which is always an agreeable feeling. Thanks to Christoph Fischer and his team for organising the whole thing.

On Saturday, I moderated a discussion on Psychopaths in Literature. I’m probably more confident understanding what a psychopath is than precisely what a moderator is, but it was a very invigorating event with authors G B (Gail) Williams, John Nicholl  and John Thompson, who have all created some spectacularly sinister characters.

In the afternoon I had a chance to catch a session on the origins of the Eisteddfod, with novelist Jean Gill  and Luke Waterson, who have both written books set in the court of the Lord Rhys who held the first Eisteddfod in Cardigan(!!!) in 1176. Readings accompanied by music (harp, crwth and flute) with Elsa Davies, Ceri Owen Jones and Jason Lawday.

I love Medieval music, can’t resist it, but I don’t know why I like it, since it always raises the hair on the back of my neck and gives me a shiver of… I can’t quite place it. Tragedy, I think. Considering the talk was of the extremely raunchy songs of the period, I’m not sure where the tragedy comes from.

After that I gave a talk on Crime, History and Fiction which I realised, after choosing the title, was a bit like choosing to talk about Life, the Universe and Everything. I had to take a machete to my notes and cut the subject down to a 40 minute helter-skelter race through 1500 years and congratulations to all who listened to me without collapsing with shell shock. It did allow me to read a couple of extracts from my new book, LongShadows, which only popped up on Amazon the day before. Thanks to all who came to Fountain Fine Arts Gallery  to join me.

On Sunday I was at the book fair, with a chance to meet the public and also catch up with other Honno authors (Judith Barrow, Hilary Shepherd, Jan Newton and Carole Lovekin) and Crime Cymru authors (Gail Williams and Cheryl Rees-Price).

Now, alas, I have to return to my deep burrow and think about things like broken fridges and freezers. A less entertaining sort of domestic noir.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Joys of Rediscovery

Last week I was listening to an interview with 100-year-old Diana Athill, editor and novelist (Woman’s Hour, I think), and she talked about the potential joy of losing her memory, forgetting she had read a book and being able to discover it all over again. It reminded me of books I have been able to discover twice, not as a result of failing memory but thanks to the word “Abridged.”

When I was a child, I was invariably given a book for Christmas. There were Puffins, of course, but a great many were red-cloth hardbacks of classics, published by Dean & Son, or Regency. They must have been going for some time, because my mother passed on some of hers (with titles like Phyllis of the Fourth Form and featuring a lot of hockey). They all had pages like blotting paper (the lingering results of wartime economy production, maybe), and they usually had one or two pictures. Just enough to intrigue. I particularly remember the picture in the Regency edition of Jane Eyre, which struck me, even at a very young age, as bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Rochester and Jane.

It was that edition of Jane Eyre that first opened my eyes to that word “Abridged.” Much of the story made no sense at all, but I put it down to me being young and the writer being Victorian and nothing in the adult world really making sense. Why did Jane get on a stage coach, get off it a few hours later and almost immediately be found starving by St John Rivers? I knew that I could get quite peckish in a couple of hours, but I’d never swooned with hunger after one coach journey. Years later, I read the Penguin classic version of Jane Eyre and discovered all the vast chunks that had been left out of the Regency edition, including the days Jane spends wandering on the moors, resorting to pig swill in her desperation. It read as a completely different book. After that, I was able to go back over all the books I’d read in my childhood and discover the full unabridged versions. Like coming across a book for the first time.

I have never understood the reasoning behind the abridging decisions. It had nothing to do with shielding children from naughtiness or nastiness. I think it was just an exercise in randomly saving paper. As well as the Dean and Regency classics, I also inherited a few Everyman’s Library little volumes from my grandfather. I learned to read far more effectively from struggling with Alexander Dumas’ Twenty Years After (because it featured the absolutely fascinating execution of Charles I) than I ever did ploughing through the tedious Janet and John series. As I discovered later, they too were abridged. Ironically, the Everyman versions (intended for adults) coyly left out the sex scenes, and the children’s version kept the sex but left out the most humorous scenes.

I have yet to tackle the unabridged version of Moby Dick. Maybe that’s because I never could bring myself to tackle the unabridged version. Sorry about that, Herman.