Monday, 29 June 2009

A dish served cold

I had a bit of a mini-revelation yesterday. About why I write novels. Seems like it might be all about revenge.

Recently I was one of several writers pitching their new books to some readers in a lovely wee independent shop in Glasgow called Lost in Fiction. (The sadness is that the shop had to cease trading as of today – thanks again, Amazon, Tesco’s et al.) Anyway, my three-minute pitch went like this:

A couple of questions we’re always asked are ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and 'Are your books autobiographical?' In the case of The Darkness, they're central to how I wrote the first version and how it developed into this one. Many years ago, I was having dinner with my wife and friends at a restaurant just outside Aberdeen. The waiter serving us had a West Country accent – English West Country. I said to him ‘You’re a long way from home’. He said ‘Yes, I needed to get as far away as possible’. I asked why and he told me his wife and two young daughters had been killed by a drunk driver. He’d been caught, sentenced to eighteen months, but got twelve months off for good behaviour. As the waiter said, ‘That’s two months for each life’.

I felt so sorry for him, and the story stayed with me. I wanted revenge on his behalf. And the first version of The Darkness was exactly that. My agent sent it to Piatkus. They liked it but didn’t want a stand alone thriller at that time but said they’d be interested if I had any police procedurals. So I wrote one. They bought it. And I wrote some more.

I started thinking about making The Darkness part of the series, but it was crude. It was me, red in tooth and claw. My own vigilante tendencies bother me. When it comes to capital punishment, imprisonment and so on I’m a liberal, I’ve corresponded with a prisoner on Death Row, and yet I know for a fact that if I could get my hands on some of these paedophiles and so on, I’d do very nasty things to them. And I’d do it knowing it was wrong, but I’d still do it.

So, in the end, I wrote and rewrote The Darkness over and over again, exploring the balance between the law and justice, revenge and compassion. The motives and the personnel changed. It’s now the third Jack Carston novel and it’s taught me so much about my characters and the whole business of crime and punishment that, before I send off the next two, which are already written, I want to change them. Then, there’ll be just one more. I already know its plot and structure and it’ll have an even darker ending than this one.

Given what I’m claiming for the book, it was nice to read in one of the reviews that ‘When you read The Darkness be prepared to be manipulated and have your moral compass reset’. And the same review ended by saying ‘get yourself a copy of The Darkness and ask yourself this; what would you do?’

OK, that was my spiel – and I meant it, and it was true. But yesterday, reading an article about books being made into movies, I suddenly remembered reading First Blood, which is the first of the Rambo stories. I haven’t seen the movies and have no desire to, but that was a well-constructed thriller and a good escapist read. At the end, though, I felt frustrated and cheated by a choice the protagonist made. It was about revenge. But his ‘failure’ to exact the full revenge, while morally ‘correct’, was out of character in the context of the story. This isn’t a criticism of the writing, it’s just my take on the morality involved. I won’t reveal the specific incident to which I’m referring because some people may not have read it so I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for them.

The point, though, is that it made me want to write a novel in which the revenge impulse was allowed its full scope. Up to then I'd written plays and short stories but it was the anger, the revenge impulse that set me thinking of the novel form. I imagine that many if not most people experience the visceral eye-for-an-eye urge and it doesn’t do to pretend that it’s not there. I’m not proposing a free-for-all, but it’s honest to acknowledge that it’s a factor, even in the most liberally-informed debates.

So there you have it - I write novels because I'm nasty.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


I’m beginning to understand how bloggers find so much to say. Fortunately, my lethargy will continue to prevent me spending too much time putting this new-found knowledge into practice but, with another train journey to fill, I can muse a little on a totally insignificant event which nevertheless managed to achieve some momentum – and which I think I can twist into something connected with the writing process.
I was in my daughter’s car, being driven to Loch Lomond, her two sons (aged 8 and 4) in the back with her, her husband at the wheel. In front of us, a VW Beetle. Dangling in the centre of the rear window was a plastic, half peeled banana – exactly the same colour as the car.

‘Oh look, an amusing banana,’ said my daughter, with the devastating satirical tone which is obviously my legacy to her.

Never one to be out-satired, especially by someone for whom I’ve striven to be a role model for years (with limited success), I challenged her choice of adjective, suggesting that it might actually be quite a serious banana. Bananas, after all, have a bad press in that they’re always held responsible for unfortunate slip-ups (NB and sic) by politicians and others. Rather than being mere instruments of comedy as they lie on pavements or in corridors of power waiting for unwary strollers, their intent may well be to draw attention to aspects of the ideology, theology or overall morality of those whom they target.

So compelling were these considerations that we didn’t even progress to speculating on the owners of the car, who’d chosen a dangling ornament which was colour-coded exactly with their paintwork, but implicit in that choice was a whole history involving jaundice, egg yolks, fluorescent safety vests, cowardice in the face of the enemy.

And so on, and so on.

Indeed, had my two grandsons not pretty soon made it clear that the various banana analogies were becoming homicidally tedious, we could have still been analysing the socio-political influence of bananas and their role in the development of Western Philosophy when Ben Lomond loomed over us.

I know that the main effect of this blog will be to make you vow never to return to it and certainly never to share a car with me, but it does have a point, at which we’ve almost arrived.

I put a short note summarising the above on my Facebook page, whereupon one of my friends wondered whether we’d considered there might be links with a banana republic.
So my point is this. When people ask ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ the answer is ‘Everywhere’. Because it’s not necessarily the original idea that’s so important but the life it takes on and the infinity of directions it can follow. Words generate other words, synonyms, antonyms, and all of them open more doors, bring more layers of meaning. The banana was a silly example but, for that very reason, it makes the point better. If the initial idea is of greater significance – the death of an individual, the revenge of one person on another, the pulsing of some extreme passion – its ramifications are correspondingly greater.

All of which means that writing’s dead easy, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


The Cairngorms
I’m on a train. Leaving Aberdeen to go to Glasgow and spend a weekend with my daughter and her two sons. ‘So what?’ you ask. Well, I’m just feeling lucky to live in such a place and have the sort of freedom that lets me do such things. Because the sun is shining, the North Sea is sparkling and swirling round the base of its cliffs to my left and on the right there are fields, great rolls of gorse in full bloom and, in the distance, the folds and peaks of the Cairngorm Mountains. And this is just the relatively tame bit of the country. I know that, if I turned right when I got to Glasgow and drove along the coast, each turn of the road would make me want to stop, get out, breathe the air and take a photograph which would never do it all justice.

The west coast of Scotland is a magical place. The mountains dive straight down into the sea lochs and their Gaelic names give them all a specific character. One of my favourites is An Teallach – the sleeping man. As you drive towards it, that’s what it looks like – some giant has decided to have a nap and has stretched out on his side. Nearby is Slioch. Many years ago, I canoed the length of Loch Maree, which lies beneath and along it. It took several hours and, whereas normally you feel your progress in relation to places on the shore, Slioch seemed to just stand there, not budging. I know, I know, mountains don’t budge. It’s not in their nature, but try spending some time amongst them and you feel there are presences there. It’s their place, not yours. As I’ve said before, I’m not a believer in anything
Ben Lomond
religious or paranormal, but the Scottish Highlands don’t fall easily into rational definitions. Yes, they’re geographical things, but their silences, the ruined houses you see here and there and some other indefinable sensations recall the people who lived here. It’s not a romantic fancy to feel that life lived here is qualitatively different from the noisy complicated way we pass our days now. In these mountains, we know that we’re small, absurd intruders, but we also know we’re part of something that stretches beyond our comprehension and suggests that somewhere, buried miles deep in our psyche, is the knowledge that we belong here.

Unfortunately, so do the midges. I don’t think it was a snake which drove Adam East of Eden, I think it was a midgie.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Leticia, Gavin, Roger and Me

I admire writers who plot and plan and claim complete control over their work and still produce believable, realistic characters and situations. It’s not a way I’ve ever operated with my fiction. Things such as academic articles or commercial presentations have to be carefully structured, so organising the material before you link it all together is essential. But, in fiction, if you set restraints on your characters before you even let them loose, it seems to me that you prevent them becoming who they are. I have no idea why fictional characters seem to have an existence independent of the person who created them, but they do. A writer on a panel I chaired once summed it up by saying ‘You have to give your characters room to dance’.

I’m not suggesting that novels are actually written by the characters. You need to know where they’re going, what their role in the overall scheme is, the points at which they’re going to clash or combine to build the narrative, so you manipulate them into the contexts you need. But, once there, they may come up with things which seem to come from them rather than from you. A particularly nasty policeman in one of my novels was angry after getting a bollocking from his boss. He went back to his office, reached for the bottom drawer of his desk and took out an iron bar which he kept there to vent his frustrations. He bent and straightened it until he felt better.

But the reason I’m writing this is that what started as a lazy way of avoiding writing a blog has rebounded on me. On the 1st of the month, instead of writing something new, I posted a romantic parody I’d written a while ago. It was supposed to be a self-contained thing which was just taking the piss out of the genre (and, before fans of romance complain, I should say that I write parodies of all sorts of genres, including what I have to think of as my own, and they’re aimed at making readers laugh, not at undermining their targets). But a couple of friends wanted to know what happened next. It seemed an enjoyable way to write another blog, so I developed the scene a little further. The same friends are now saying they want more.

But the really strange thing is that I, too, am wondering what happens next. The characters, who started as stereotypes, have become themselves. They’re drawing me back to them, almost demanding my attention. It’s as if they resent being left in suspension. I suppose it would be easy to write a third, concluding instalment which resolved all the issues. Just to get rid of them. But I suspect that they wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They’ve started to let me see who they are, they’ve got attitudes, hopes, inner conflicts. Damn them. They had no right to have all those. They were gags, puppets, elements I was going to manipulate to get a few laughs. How weird to think I’m a sort of social worker, with responsibilities to these figments of my (and the readers’) imagination. But that’s how it feels.

But they’d better not mess with me too much. I’m a crime writer. Some of my characters do nasty things to one another. These ‘lovers of Wensley Dale’ are so wrapped up in their own affairs that they haven’t thought of that. It could make all their current problems seem like paradise.

Oh no, I just realised… What if they don’t die? What if I only maim them? Then they’d end up in hospital. So I’d have to write a hospital drama. God, it’s so hard being a writer.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Lovers of Wensley Dale - 2

It’s a well-known Internet fact that, when people want deep, meaningful philosophy and need comfort, condolences, compassion and lots of other things beginning with C, this is the last place they come. However, despite the fact that today I’d intended to conflate The Iliad, The King James Bible, four poems by Tennyson and the text of Irn Bru adverts between 1995 and 2004, that particular piece of enlightenment has had to be shelved. The reason? Well, by popular demand (OK, 2 people suggested it), I’ve penned (better than ‘keyboarded’) a continuation of ‘The Lovers of Wensley Dale’.

The story so far was posted on June 1st. It continues thus:

Leticia’s body was still awash with the desire Roger’s parting kiss had kindled in her. Her time at Wal-Mart had dulled her appreciation of metaphor to such an extent that she was ignorant of the fact that the conflation of kindled and awash implied a soggy fireplace. For her, the passion was an awakening, a confirmation that her time spent watching those TV movies written by Jane Austen had been the beginning of her education as a Belle Dame sans Merci.
She got up, poured herself another glass of the rich red wine and once more stood before the cheval mirror, turning her body to admire the way the satin folded jealously down the curve of her back. She lifted the hem of her dress, admired the legs which Roger had kissed and likened to freshly dug asparagus, and felt again the stirring inside her that was always provoked by the memory of his lips on her skin. She wanted him again. Badly. His sardonic laugh was a drug, the curl of his hair a challenge, his cheese-related quips a delight.
His image came to her – pulsing, hot, eager – and the Beethoven was suddenly infiltrated by the counterpoint of the Nokia theme. Roger! It was a sign. Merely thinking of him was bringing him to her, giving her access to his voice and, by extension, the tongue and lips which caressed its modulations into the air. The telepathy she sensed between them could fly through the night and burrow into his mind. And his body.
She put down her glass and looked around for her cell phone. (She’d stopped calling it a ‘mobile’ when Roger had smiled at her and told her that anecdote about himself with the B-movie actress in the elevator in Philadelphia.) It was on the rug in front of the blazing fire. She grabbed it without bothering to look at its little screen, spread herself on the sheepskin, rolled onto her back and pressed the button. There was silence with only a faint sound of breathing to disturb it.
‘Darling?’ she said.
The silence stretched. Then came a sneeze.
‘Roger?’ she said, alarmed at the thought that he was in any discomfort.
‘’snot Roger,’ said a voice.
Leticia sat up.
‘Who is it?’ she snapped, angry that her lover’s place had been usurped by a stranger.
‘’sme. Gavin,’ said the voice.
‘Oh no. What do you want? Bugger off,’ said Leticia, her Paisley accent resurfacing for the first time in days.
‘I can’t. I’ve got a puncture,’ said Gavin.
‘I’m not a bloody bike shop,’ said Leticia. ‘What you phonin me for?’
‘’cuz I still loves you, Myrtle,’ said Gavin.
‘Don’t call me that,’ said Leticia.
‘But it’s your name.’
‘Not any more. So bugger off. Where are you anyway?’
‘Outside,’ said Gavin. ‘I rode up here to see you, but me bike got the puncture just outside the village so I pushed it here.’
Leticia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The village was a mile away. He couldn’t be here. Not Gavin. Not that loser. Outside Roger’s log cabin? Impossible.
She went to the window and looked out. In the yellow light it cast on the deepening snow stood a figure, wearing only a Celtic football shirt and a pair of jeans. Over his shoulder was a bike.
Bloody Gavin. She felt the hot tears brimming in her eyes. This never happened to Miss Bennett. It made a mockery of the flickering fire, the cabin’s sumptuous interior. It breached her dream and, in its place, built stark reminders of Wal-Mart and special offers on selected brands of cheese.
Gavin’s phone was still pressed to his ear.
‘Oh God, you look gorgeous,’ he said.
‘So I bloody should,’ said Leticia. ‘This is a Vera Wang frock. Twelve hundred quid’s worth.’
Gavin knelt in the snow, one arm stretched beseechingly out toward her, the other still holding his phone.
‘Come home. Please,’ he said.
Home. The single room in the tenement. The Pizza Hut deliveries. The laundrette. The TV with just five channels. No, she’d graduated from all that. She’d been elevated to the hushed corridors of amorous elegance. She could control her own destiny. Myrtle was dead. Long live Leticia.
She closed the phone and drew the curtains. Even in such adversity, love would triumph.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Being funny

A question on Linda M Faulkner’s blog about ‘being funny’ set me thinking about the process of trying to make readers or audiences laugh. There are some, such as Michael Malone on his May Contain Nuts blog, who seem to find it effortless. And the trouble is, when it isn’t apparently effortless, it isn’t funny either.

There are plenty of theories, of course, lots of them stressing the cruel nature of laughter. They suggest it’s an expression of superiority, the purest sound of schadenfreude. But that’s too crude. Laughter’s a shared reaction – and it doesn’t have to be at someone else’s expense.

If we stick with the theories for a moment, the one I like best is the one which says that laughter’s actually an intellectual manifestation. It’s the mind seeing a set of circumstances, assuming they’ll progress in a particular way then having those assumptions undermined when something unexpected happens. At its crudest, it’s the banana skin scenario. A person (preferably one of rank and substance) is walking along and suddenly becomes a disarticulated mechanism. If the result is a serious injury, the laughter dies at once, which rather discredits the ‘laughter is cruel’ theory. It’s the juxtaposition of apparently mutually exclusive sets of rules.

A medal-laden head of state processing along a red carpet is a ‘moral’ entity, for want of a better word, embodying the pomp, ceremony and grandeur of an eminent human being and a representative of the rest of us. When he ends up in a blushing, tangled heap, he’s merely a substance that’s subject to the laws of gravity. The mind appreciates the gap between the two and we laugh. The laugh demonstrates our capacity for appreciating distinctions, for being capable of judging and assessing situations.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your tolerance and indulgence. Because such theorising doesn’t really achieve much and definitely isn’t funny. So how do we ‘write funny’?

Well, when I used to write sketches (skits in the USA) and songs for performance, the characters used to do the work for me. For example, when Mary (the virgin) discovers she’s pregnant, she breaks the news to her fiancé, Joseph who, according to the Bible is then ‘minded to put her away privily’. I love that. It skates over the whole crucial scene there must have been between the two of them. Imagine your own fiancé(e), whose wish to remain intact you’ve respected, coming in and saying ‘By the way, I’m up the spout’. How do you get from there to the seeming acceptance of ‘OK, babe., I’ll just put you away privily’.

Or what sort of conversation would Jude the Obscure share with Tess at the Casterbridge disco?

And how did Adam and Eve relax when he came home from a long hard day in the garden? (This was before they were aware of their nakedness and original sin, remember.)

In all these cases, and in others, such as Hannibal Lecter’s quip that he was ‘having a friend for dinner’, it’s the co-existence of two separate levels of interpretation that generates the humour.

All of which sets me up perfectly for comments such as ‘What do you know about laughter? None of your stuff’s funny’.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sketch/skit 2 The Lovers of Wensley Dale

Once again, my idleness prompts me to take refuge in posting a sketch I wrote a few months back. It was prompted by a discussion with a friend about genres and it's a parody of a romance. And, before aficionados of the genre complain, please remember that parody is a sincere form of flattery. So, I give you:


Leticia's eyes softened as she turned from the window and looked back into the cabin. Outside, the snow was still deep, the tracks left by Roger’s Black Colt Extrema were beginning to fill as the wind drifted the fresh falls over them. But here, the logs crackled, the flames glinted on the bottle of Château Pétrus Roger had opened before he left, and the unhurried notes of a Beethoven sonata curled towards her through the warm, pine-scented air.

She walked slowly to the hearth, pausing to check her reflection in the long cheval mirror. The cream satin of her dress clung to her, her green eyes smouldered as she deliberately lowered her eyelids and pouted a smile at herself. God, what a difference love had made to her. Was it really just a month ago that she'd been living in a tenement room with Gavin? Could it really be just four short weeks since she'd had to put up with his shift work as a hospital porter and somehow combined looking after him with holding down her job at the Wal-Mart cheese counter?

As she draped herself over the chaise longue and watched the flames flicker, she let her mind drift back to the day Roger had appeared. She’d been setting out slabs of Dolcelatte, Brie and a particularly ripe Camembert when she heard a polite ‘Excuse me’. She looked up and felt an instant frisson of delight shimmer in her heart. He was leaning towards her but she could see that he was tall. A lock of his tousled dark hair fell forward over his brow and his electric blue eyes pierced into hers. He smiled and, as she felt the frisson melt into a delicious warmth, she knew that she was his.

‘Have you got any Wensleydale?’ he purred.

His voice reached out and enveloped her, its textures soft and dark as chocolate, its slight Highland accent lilting her into a willing submission. As she unwrapped the cheese and cut a wedge, she felt his eyes on her, felt his gaze as a gentle, loving violation. Her hands shook and the knife slipped, nicking the end of her left forefinger. She gave a little gasp and lifted it up from the cheese. But before she could move away he reached across, took her hand softly in his and drew her finger to his mouth. She watched, her eyes wide, as his full lips parted and he gently guided the tip of her finger between them. She felt his tongue wet and warm against her skin.

‘Come with me,’ he said as he withdrew her finger and looked at it. ‘I have a first aid kit in my car.’
Unhesitatingly, she followed him out to the car park where a Ferrari Testarossa gleamed across two disabled parking spaces. Roger leaned back against it, drew her to him and they came together in a kiss that shook her world.

Forty yards away, Gavin leaned his bike against the wall and watched as his life’s dream splintered and his heart broke.