Thursday, 18 October 2018

In praise of Libraries

Newport community Library
I was at an event in a library last night, chatting with author Roz Watkins about crime writing. The library was Newport Community Library, (Newport Pembrokeshire, that is), maintained by volunteers and donations because all around the country small libraries are being shut. Councils, struggling to economise, regard libraries as a luxury frill that can be dispensed with at no serious social cost, especially now that everyone, but everyone, has access to the internet and can get whatever they want online – which, of course, is rubbish. I buy books cheaply on Kindle and I research on-line, but I still regard libraries as a vital part of my life.
National Library of Wales

My books feature ‘detectives,’ who are not police but ordinary people trying to get to the bottom of mysteries, and frequently they make use of libraries, because where else would you begin to look? How many murders have been plotted and solved in libraries? Libraries are special, whether they are mighty National Libraries with security systems like the Pentagon or little community libraries like Newport.
Luton's Carnegie Library

One of my oldest memories is of going into the Carnegie Library in Luton with my mother, an experience not dissimilar to walking into a church – a sense of dignity and awe, grand towering doors, a strange musty smell, and people being very hushed for fear of divine retribution. Silence except for the squeak of shoes and the rhythmic thump of the metal stamp on date slips as devout worshippers filed out past the stern lady deacons at the polished oak pulpit. A temple of books. I know the repressive atmosphere of the past is frowned upon in libraries now, but it did breed a sense of awe in me. Libraries were special. Awesome.

The old college library at Aber
I went to university in Aberystwyth, theoretically to study history, though I’d already decided that all I wanted to do in life was write. When I was there, the old college on the sea front (a former hotel in mock-gothic style) was still stalked by students as well as office staff and it housed the library where I went to do my research. Magnificent, vaulted, galleried, everything a library should be. Shades of Hogwarts. And best of all, adjoining it was the documents library, more tiered gallery than floor, full of court rolls and chronicles, and blessed with a lancet window in an alcove, overlooking the wild raging sea. I spent a lot of time in that alcove, researching some documents, but mostly writing novels (which were never published, but you have to start somewhere).

Luton Central Library
When I finished my degree and realised, since I hadn’t yet found a publisher who recognised my sheer genius, it occurred to me, with horror, that I would actually have to spend the next forty or so years working for a living. I needed to find a job. The only job I could even contemplate was librarian. I pictured myself sitting in hushed splendour at a desk, writing away all day except when I had to look up occasionally and stamp a book. Rather than stay at college and qualify as a librarian I thought I’d start as a library assistant and earn a bit of money for a change. So I got a job at Luton Central Library. The old Carnegie library had been demolished along with much else of quaint interest in the town, to make way for a huge Arndale centre, but a brand new library had been built, very 60s, opened by the Queen in 1963. All concrete, wide stairs, open space, glass panels and… a computerised issuing system. This was when computers were still flickering green screens in the hands of scientists. I worked in the reference library - books, magazines, cuttings folders, maps, leaflets, company reports, microfilms (maddening) microfiche (agonising). It rapidly put paid to sitting quietly at a desk, writing away at my novels, but ah, the joy of having all knowledge, world-wide and local, at my fingertips all day.

When I left, in 1982, a new weird contraption had arrived in the reference library – strictly for the use of the chief librarian only. This was a sort of cradle that the phone receiver fitted into, and if the right number was dialled and a secret password entered on the library’s computer, it would be connected to library databases all around the world. Huh, I thought. Big deal. What I didn’t appreciate was that it was the first little wail of a new-born called the internet, which would do more than anything to undermine the value of libraries.

Of course it’s a delight to be able to google anything, and have such an invaluable research tool at my fingertips without having to take my hands off the laptop I’m writing on. But it’s not where I go if I want to browse for a new novel I might fancy, or check up on a fact of local history, or find out just about anything that predates the 1980s, or just have a break from shopping in an atmosphere that’s more cerebral. More importantly, libraries are where people go who don’t have access to the internet or any idea how to use it. It’s a place where people who might have little other social contact, can meet and share thoughts. And all through history, the library has been the demarcation line between civilisation and ideas on one side and philistine ignorance, bigotry and repression on the other. Bad guys burn libraries – and shut them.
Mosul library, courtesy of ISIS


Saturday, 18 August 2018

convincing dialogue

I write in the morning, first thing, before getting out of bed. But much of my thinking about what I am going to write is done on a walk after dinner. This isn’t a matter of striding out across the moors, or along the foreshore in the moonlight, you understand. I live 300 yards down a private lane. Don’t get ideas of a gated drive leading to a Palladian country house. It’s a Pembrokeshire farm lane, owned by our farmer neighbours who never use it, and my evening walk consists of marching up and down between towering hedgerows, occasionally diverted by birds in the overhanging ash trees, or the sight of the first snowdrop, but mostly I’m just stomping along, back and forth, working out the next day’s writing session.

Being of a certain age, I tend to do my thinking out loud. Even when shopping at Tesco’s, which has begun to lead to anxious mothers steering their small children away from the strange woman who’s complaining loudly, to no-one in particular, about the lack of Typhoo tea and lime juice.

However, when I’m taking my after-dinner walk, I can be certain of being safe from any audience, which is very liberating. I can keep conversations between my characters going for half an hour without interruption and it does help to make dialogue more realistic. What I hadn’t appreciated was that I must do quite realistic tones and accents while I’m at it, because today, as I reached the farmyard turning point on my walk, in the middle of a violent argument between a brother and sister, I found I did have an audience – my neighbours, staring at me in alarm, and peering beyond me, in search of the drunken thug who was obviously chasing me.

I am not sure that saying ‘Hello, lovely evening, isn’t it?’ in my best Lutonian accent (despite the drizzling rain), really persuaded them that all was fine. They were exchanging worried looks as I wheeled back down the lane. But at least I’m fairly sure that my brother/sister argument is reasonably convincing.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Believe It Or Not

When my father left the air force at the end of World War II with a bit of money in his pocket, he spent some of it on a complete set of the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I still have it, well worn, with some of the 24 spines barely legible any more. It was my introduction to the idea of research in my early youth. Just to prove its date, one interesting entry reads
“Hitler, Adolf (1889 — )”

So, seeming to change the subject entirely...
My novel Shadows, while being a domestic noir novel like all my others, also contains an element of the supernatural. A very small element: I was not writing “Occult Horror”, as it was listed on Amazon at first. I grew up with Dennis Wheatley as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but I don't really want to mimic him with tales of Satanic horror. With Shadows I wasn’t even writing a ghost story. 

Supernatural themes in novels often have what might be called a religious function. They unleash some demonic force on the world, in order to illustrate the great cosmic battle of Good and Evil. That is not my field. I stick with the belief that evil is a purely human thing and it is our responsibility to sort it out. I do believe that guilt is a seriously powerful driving force, for good or ill, and I do love the idea of using fiction to impose a form of justice, but I am not concerned with cosmic powers using us as pawns.

Paranormal fiction also frequently focuses on the idea of lost souls, ghosts who cannot let go of life. I can understand the appeal of that perfectly. Few of us do want to let go, unless things get desperate, so the notion of hanging around after death is vaguely reassuring, even in a state of damnation. I find the idea of ghosts very satisfying, which is why I have written many ghost stories myself, but I don't actually believe in them. I stick with my faith that everything ultimately will be found to have a scientific explanation.

Ultimately.
https://www.doctorsbeyondmedicine.com/listings/body-electric

So since Shadows is not really intended to be a paranormal novel, I made the paranormal ‘gift’ of my protagonist Kate something that might sound almost scientifically plausible. She feels the shadows, the sensation of violent deaths locked up in stone and mortar. Why scientifically plausible? Well, we are electric beings. Our cells communicate electrically. Electricity drives our hearts, our nervous systems, our brains, whizzing across our synapses. Would it be so fanciful for a major traumatic event like violent death to trigger a sort of high-voltage discharge that would earth itself in the surrounding inanimate materials? (If you’re going to say yes, way too fanciful, don’t be a spoilsport). I don’t see why it might not be possible. It just hasn’t been scientifically confirmed, or even investigated yet.

What has this to do with my father’s set of encyclopaedias? Well, published in 1944, they have an extensive article on earthquakes, how they are measured, what the effects are, where they are to be found – along fault lines in distinct zones often connected with volcanoes - but the article makes no mention of the cause of earthquakes being the collision of tectonic plates. I discovered this when I tried to refer to volume 7 while doing geography homework in the early 1970s and found not a single mention. I was affronted, as Mrs Tabitha Twitchit would say. How could such a prestigious work miss out something so fundamental to our understanding of the planet? Then I realised that plate tectonics had not been scientifically established in 1944. It came later, like the double helix of DNA, or quarks or the Higgs Boson. Science keeps moving on.

I may not believe in ghosts, but I do believe there are things not yet understood because science hasn’t yet got to the bottom of them.  There has been scientific research of telepathy. It hasn’t been proven, but who knows, it might be one day. Kate’s unfortunate gift in Shadows might also prove to have a scientific basis. Anyway, in the context of Shadows it doesn’t actually matter because the book is really about the crippling isolation someone might feel who has, or thinks she has, a psychic gift that others don’t share. The eerie feelings she experiences turn out to have a foundation in facts. They are bewildering facts that remain a puzzle in Shadows, but they are explained in full in my companion novel Long Shadows. Her feelings could be down to nothing more than Kate’s instinct, as another character, a scientist, suggests, acting as Devil’s advocate on my behalf. Or they could be a genuine psychic ability that science has not yet explored. I say nothing. I leave it to the reader to decide whether it’s real or mere fancy.

  

Monday, 25 June 2018

Gwen and other names

A choice of names for characters is always a matter of deep significance, though sometimes the author’s thoughts can be quite different to the reader’s. We all tend to associate certain names with certain types, born of our own experiences. I can’t think of the name Spencer without picturing Piglet (for reasons I won't explain).

Rather than rely on my own prejudices, I do try to give my characters names appropriate to the period in which they were born. Since I generally write about people who are profoundly ordinary until something extraordinary knocks them off course, I go for the most popular names of the time – unless they are exceptional and unusual people, for good or bad, in which case I give them more unique names. Names whose sound is suggestive perhaps, or whose meaning is ironic. Some names in my novel The Unravelling certainly fit into that category.

Sometime I use names culled from my own family tree, as I feel I have a proprietorial right to them, but it doesn’t mean I have ever based a character on one of my own ancestors. Some people find this hard to grasp. My grandmother was called Gwen. My first book features a grandmother called Gwen. I had to work very hard to convince one relative that A Time For Silence was not about my own grandmother. Since there was virtually nothing in the book which had any parallel to my grandmother’s life, I thought it would be obvious. For a start, my grandmother’s full name was Gwendoline Maud, whereas the Gwen in my book was Gwenllian Nesta.

My grandmother was Welsh, and when I was a child and very keen on my Welsh links, I supposed that she was called Gwendoline because it was a lovely Welsh name. In reality she was called Gwendoline because it was a lovely Victorian name. She was born in 1892, and in the first three months of that year, there were 137 Gwendolines registered in the births of England and Wales. So her name really had no significance other than popularity.

If you have a crown, wear it.
By contrast there is a great deal of significance in the choice of Gwenllian Nesta for my Gwen in A Time For Silence, and since I never explain it in the book, I thought I’d explain it here. It’s a matter of irony. Gwen is the daughter of a Welsh bard and early Welsh nationalist, who thought to call his daughter after two famous Welsh princesses. As Nesta, she was named after Nest ferch Rhys, the Helen of Medieval Wales, a notorious beauty who got around a bit, mistress to Henry I, wife of Gerald de Windsor, abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, mistress of the Sheriff of Pembroke and wife of the Constable of Cardigan. There is a fairly obvious irony comparing the life of the Princess Nest with that of my Gwenllian Nesta.

The choice of Gwenllian is not ironic so much as deeply meaningful, because there were two princesses called Gwenllian.

One was the only legitimate child of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last Welsh Prince of an independent Wales. When he was killed in 1282, Gwenllian was six months old. She was seized by Edward I and incarcerated in Sempringham priory in Lincolnshire, where she was confined, as a nun, for the rest of her life, thus preventing the line of Welsh royalty continuing. This sad Gwenllian was, from start to finish, a mere pawn in the hands of men, totally impotent, hidden away, with no function but to obey and endure.

Personally, I'd wear
something less flowing
if I planned to use a sword.
But the other princess Gwenllian was no pawn at all. She was the daughter of Gruffydd ap Cynon, King of Gwynedd (North Wales), who taught her to use a sword and far from being given passively in marriage, she eloped with Gruffydd ap Rhys, prince of Deheubarth (South Wales). The couple harried and made war on the Normans who had seized much of the land of Deheubarth and while her husband rode north to raise a larger army, Gwenllian led troops against a Norman force at Cudweli (Kidwelly) castle. She was betrayed, her troops were routed and she was captured and executed on the field of battle. Tragic but triumphant in her defiance. Her death inspired further Welsh revolt and for centuries after, “Revenge for Gwenllian” was a Welsh battle cry.
 In my latest book, Long Shadows, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd is referenced again. Marged secretly christens her doomed baby sister Gwenllian, in the knowledge that her father will mention the name every time he gets drunk.

The two Gwenllians pose alternative fates for my Gwen in A Time for Silence. To submit and endure, or to fight at any cost. Which is, in a way, the same choice offered to many of my leading characters, but they can’t all be called Gwenllian.






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