Thursday, 30 July 2009

The origins of language

I must share a remarkable discovery with the world. As a result of an activity this afternoon, I now know why humankind developed language. I’d written 14 mini scripts for a major company in the oil business, each covering a specific aspect of safe working. (Stay with me here.) They were all around 1½ minutes long and, thanks to the willingness of the person commissioning them to experiment, eschewed shots of men in overalls on North Sea platforms looking at gauges and pipes. Instead, they featured 2 cavemen performing various activities involving quarries, caves, ravines and other topographical elements of the Neanderthal context.

Needless to say, they communicate in grunts (although I also allowed them to hum and whistle stone age tunes). So, this afternoon, I went to the studio with another person and we laid down the sound tracks which would give the animators some idea of timings and maybe get their creative nodes throbbing. Unfortunately, as well as grunted conversations, some of the situations in which the characters found themselves called for screams of terror, yelps of pain, groans of frustration and other things. After an hour and twenty minutes of takes and retakes, my throat felt as if it had been sandpapered.

I’ve done lots of voice-overs in my time, some of them for videos and DVDs lasting up to forty minutes, but never before felt such laryngeal distress. Talking is so much easier than grunting and, as we chatted about the results, it came to me that that was obviously why language came about. One day, some caveman or woman was rubbing his/her throat and thought ‘Bugger this, it’s too sore’ and began to use more modulated sounds. Language evolved because our ancestors were pissed off at having sore throats all the time.

I hope this may be included as an appendix in the next edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Where do you get your ideas?

A blog by Anne Rooney in her excellent An Awfully Big Blog Adventure speculated on the origins of some of her stories, i.e. the incident which triggered a particular story. It reminded me of how my first broadcast radio play came about. It didn’t have just the one source but two. It was only when they came together that the idea formed.

The play was called An Old Man and Some People. The main substance of it came from an incident which happened when we were at a friend’s for dinner. This was many years ago. I was young and, astonishingly, drinking and driving didn’t seem mutually exclusive. The friends lived in a new house on a fairly posh estate but one which still had houses being built on it. We’d eaten and drunk well and there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman asking whether the grey van outside belonged to any of us. It was mine.

The policeman was very polite. He just wanted me to park the van around the corner off the main road. Apparently, the night watchman on the building site had ‘reported’ it. God knows why. There were no yellow lines or anything. In fact, he was just doing his job. But when the policeman left, I was angry. I was all for going out and telling the man what I thought of him. It didn’t help that our hosts tutted and said he was a nosy old bugger.

But the following day – sober, of course – I was ashamed of the way I’d felt. I was young, having a good time, eating great food and swallowing litres (probably gallons in those days come to think of it) of wine. He was old, alone, stuck in a hut on a building site. And I wanted to have a go at him. I disgusted me.

Then, several months later, I was looking through some newspaper cuttings. I clip out things which seem out of the ordinary, absurd, sad or anything which makes them stand out. This one was in the tragic category. A man was accused of the manslaughter of his wife. She’d been terminally ill for a while and was always asking him to finish her off to stop the pain. He couldn’t do it. Then, one day, she fell and was just lying there, so he took a pillow and held it over her face. Then he phoned the police and told them about it. The irony was that he was acquitted because the autopsy showed that his wife was already dead before he held the pillow to her face.

That awful image of the poor man, after months of suffering, ‘suffocating’ his wife’s body had haunted me but I’d forgotten about it. But now, suddenly, by making it a part of my night watchman’s past, I had a play which wasn’t just a petty subjective record of my unreasonable anger and consequent shame, but something which worked at a different level. Its resonance was wider, its conclusions less facile and it might involve listeners at a deeper level.

As I said, it was the first play I had broadcast. I still think it was possibly the best I ever wrote, too.

(PS. I realise that this begs another question. What’s the morality of me using a true, tragic story to give substance to my writing? Not an easy one to answer.)

Monday, 20 July 2009

How to start writing crime and mystery (or maybe not)

The main theme of this blog is supposed to be writing and, since I’m a crime writer and give the occasional workshop and/or talk on the genre, I thought it might be interesting now and then to talk about it and maybe give some hints to would-be crime/mystery writers. I suggest this not from any conviction that I have the formula for writing a masterpiece. If I did, I'd be in the Bahamas employing a ghost writer to produce my next blockbuster. No, the idea is simply to open areas which might get you asking yourself some questions. I’m not a fan of creative writing courses and, at every opportunity, I trot out Somerset Maugham’s observation. ‘There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.’ But there are ways to get the creative juices flowing (and of avoiding clichés such as that one but I’m lazy). Here’s one.

Where do you start? Serial killer? Gang warfare? Sado-masochistic practices in a nunnery? It’s a list that easy to extend. But my suggestion would be to prefer the ordinary to the extraordinary. If you start with pools of blood and a trail of smeared footprints leading down into a crypt, it’s dramatic, scary and can be thrilling. But instead, what if it’s a park bench on a sunny day? A woman’s sitting reading a book and eating her lunch sandwiches. Children are playing, old women are feeding ducks, couples are strolling along. The woman’s bag slips from her lap. She bends to retrieve it and sees a red filament. It’s a tiny, barely noticeable trickle of blood which is oozing onto the path in front of her bench. It’s coming from a tissue which someone has wrapped around something and thrown away.

The normality of the context brings the frisson closer. Until we see the blood, it’s a familiar scene, reassuring, normal – one which carries no threat, so the intrusion of a macabre element is more sinister. The shock is greater.

So try this. Tomorrow, go through at least part but preferably all of the day thinking about what you're doing - the ordinary, routine stuff - and look for clues, plots. Rather than think from the point of view of the murderer, set yourself up as a victim. Notice how many ways you could be murdered – not by any grandiose scheming, bombs, guns, etc. (although that’s not as unlikely as it used to be) but by the normal trappings of the way you live.

For example, toothpaste is a threat. Who has access to your toothbrush? What could they put on it to get rid of you? There are some toxins of which even a tiny drop would be very effective. Who knows about any vitamins or medication you’re on? How easy is it for them to tamper with it? Who knows what foodstuffs you prefer? Or where you shop? Could anyone have found indications of medications you need in the rubbish you’ve thrown away? Who’s watching your movements in and out of the house? Are there any places on your route to work where you’re particularly vulnerable? Why is there a ladder against the neighbour’s wall? What’s in the box they’ve put out with their wheelie bin? And so it goes on through the day. Multiply all these questions by the number of people who have access to the various items and locations and you have a complex set of relationships – which generate lots of ideas. In my case, the answer to most of these questions is ‘My wife’ but fortunately she doesn’t read this blog.

So keep asking yourself these things and, each time you come up with an answer, always ask ‘But why would the person want to do that?’ Even the simplest action has reasons behind it and consequences. Ask what the reasons are and what’ll happen afterwards and you’ve got the beginnings of a story, or maybe the story itself.

See? It’s a nice game to play with yourself. And once that central departure point is set – the toothbrush, the bottle of vitamin pills, the tools in your garden shed – possibilities and consequences multiply. And you can start jigsawing together clues, red herrings, suspects and, most of all, characters. And pretty soon you’ll have the makings of a plot because, at least in my way of working, plots arise from characters, not the other way round.

Try it, and when you write the best seller as a result of using this technique, send me my cut of the profits. (Percentages to be agreed later.)

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Sauvignon blanc? Or would you prefer blood?

I was at an Oxfam shop this morning, signing books as part of their Bookfest fortnight and I got into conversation with a reader about the gory bits of crime writing. It reminded me that I'd written a piece about it on my website, so I've lifted it from there for this blog.

OK, this is the dilemma. I started a chapter with the following:

He considered nailing her hands to the floor but the thought of the delirious headlines which that would generate quickly helped to banish the impulse.

There followed two paragraphs written from ‘his’ POV. Here’s another fragment to give the flavour:

He wanted her to see him, look at him, know that the hopelessness of her condition left him cold. He wondered if cutting off her eyelids would do the trick. She’d certainly have nothing to close then, no little blinds to draw down over the sight of him. But how much blood would there be? Would it cloud her vision? Well, it would clot eventually and he’d be able to sponge it away from her irises with some warm soapy water. Anyway, there was only one way to find out.

The dilemma was that, having re-read the stuff a few days later, I wondered, for the umpteenth time, what damage it might do to a susceptible or slightly unbalanced reader and whether it was irresponsible to pander to tastes which derived pleasure from scenes of torture and sadism. I know that it’s a subject that’s been debated by the best writers, critics and psychologists, but so far none has been able to quell the visceral unease I feel at putting yet more Grand Theft Auto mayhem in the public domain.

There’s a nasty scene towards the end of Material Evidence. It’s there because I thought that’s what the public wanted and that it might help to get the book accepted. That suggests that it may be gratuitous, but it’s not; it’s necessary both for the plot and to help understand the psychology of the character involved. After reading it, a cousin of mine wrote to say that she was appalled that I could have such ideas in my head and, to judge from our contacts since, it did alter the nature of our relationship. My agent, the late and sadly missed Maggie Noach, reinforced the notion, once introducing me to a friend as ‘a nice man who has very nasty thoughts’.

In Rough Justice, there’s a rape; it’s brutal but, once more, it’s necessary. Indeed, in her review in the Sunday Telegraph, Susanna Yager wrote ‘It isn’t there to titillate, but to carry the story forward and ultimately bring about the climax to a thoughtful and thought-provoking book’. And yet, when I’m asked to give a reading, I never choose such passages. So what’s happening here? As the writer, I create the fiction; as the reader, I feel squeamish about it. I’m not tempted to use terms such as multiple personality or schizophrenia because I’d get them wrong, but it does seem that there are two different types of thinking involved.

Most people are fascinated by violence – witness the rubber-necking at accident scenes, the scrupulous recording of the intimate aspects of murders in the papers, especially when the circumstances are particularly grisly. We (if this doesn’t include you, my apologies) enjoy the frisson such stories give us, and when something nasty happens to someone we know, i.e. a character in a book with whom we’ve become familiar, the effect is that much greater. On the other hand, and simultaneously, we deplore violence and would be incapable of perpetrating such acts ourselves.

There’s no point in denying the fact that I get as much pleasure, maybe more, from writing a harrowing scene as from writing a ‘normal’ piece of narrative. And not because I’m doing what one apologist suggested, i.e. ‘stylising’ murder. I don’t remember who it was, but he/she claimed that violence in crime novels was acceptable because it was stylised rather than real. How do you stylise an axe biting into a skull? Does using the word ‘biting’ soften it through metaphor? Not in my literal mind it doesn’t.

No, the pleasure is a delight in breaking the taboos, inhabiting for a few moments the primitive segments of my psyche, setting aside the glass of Sauvignon blanc and the bons mots about the failure of the violinist to sustain the tempo in the accelerando passage of the second movement. It’s a wide-eyed amazement at what our imaginations can conceive and of the desecrations we’re capable of performing on our fellows.

And I suppose it’s an escape valve. The horror is such that it satisfies those deeper instincts and allows us to take our seats after the interval and appreciate the virtuosity the violinist brings to the pizzicato passage (or whatever the correct musical terms for all these things are – the language of savagery comes much more easily to me than that of refinement).

The problem comes when we reflect on copycat killings, on the casual use of knives by kids, on the glamour of violence itself. I’m not happy at the thought that some words of mine, dreamed up in the comfort of my study, with my view of the garden, might lodge in the mind of some unfortunate whose moral antenna are set differently and who might find the products of my primitive indulgences ‘cool’.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Men may become redundant. But ...

I can’t resist it. Scientists in Newcastle have created sperm in their lab. This prompts a dual reaction. The first is to cycle through a long list of obvious schoolboy gags, but the second is more interesting. It’s the possibility that this will make men redundant.

I’ve spent decades being embarrassed by the macho culture, appalled at the brutality inflicted by men on what is literally the weaker sex. I don’t understand how these two attitudes can co-exist so easily. How absurd that the proof that you have the biggest cojones is best exemplified by being able to beat the shit out of someone who’s effectively defenceless. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but none of the subtle, erudite analyses of the male psychology is remotely persuasive when you see the black and bloodshot eyes, the fractured cheekbones, the split lips and swollen faces of the women they’ve used as convenient punchbags. It’s hard to believe in the perfectibility of our species when you realise that someone, even if they do have a severely limited set of brain cells, can perpetrate such things.

The whole ‘show me a silver medallist and I’ll show you the first of the losers’ mentality is ludicrous, negative, destructive. It also implies a severe lack of understanding of the wider values that need to be recognised to establish and maintain communal living. And, when I hear people braying that sort of thing, I always wonder what’s missing in their lives that makes them so needy, so desperate to be acknowledged.

I know there are women who voice the same mantra but, for the most part, these individuals show a wider set of values than their male counterparts and confine the competitive imperative to their (usually athletic) endeavours. Because, let’s face it, women are nicer than men.

So the Newcastle development seems promising. Maybe there could be a future in which humans don’t elect people like Bush and Blair, who fling on their bomber jackets and strut to the microphones to mouth platitudes and lies about saving the world and democracy. Maybe the days of the alpha male (like Bernie Ecclestone, for God’s sake) are limited. Maybe women will eventually take over.

But, of course, the minute that thought begins to form, two awful truths slink out of the shadows, truths which are precisely identifiable and which undermine the whole optimistic impulse. Even if machismo is doomed, there’ll still be things like Margaret Thatcher and, now, Sarah Palin.

OK, there’s no hope. So let’s just enjoy it.