Friday, 25 June 2010
As the ‘part two’ suggests, this is a continuation of an experiment which started when I asked readers for ingredients for a blog. If you’re new here, it’ll make more sense if you start by looking at the blog before last, called A (probably very unwise) challenge. And, for ‘The story so far…’ check Dinsdale the whale – part one.
Dinsdale said she was different right from the start. He was contemplating a poem about horses so he’d been eating nothing but hay for a week and booked himself in for a penis extension. She’d heard him whinny as he waited for a bus and surprised him by identifying him as a piebald mustang which had probably been broken in by a member of the Sioux nation. Everyone else at the bus stop had told him to shut up and bugger off.
I only met her once myself. It was about two weeks after that at our local. When I went in I saw them at a table. She was rolling some leaves into a tight, purplish-green cylinder. The blade cut, sharp, snicking through, releasing an aroma of...
‘Bloody hell,’ said Dinsdale. ‘That smells like dog shit.’
She smiled and, in a low, breathy voice, said ‘No, my stallion. It has the aroma of pungent prairie, the fragrance of soft hidden yearnings’.
‘Ah, right,’ said Dinsdale.
He introduced us. Her name was Peggy Sioux.
‘Ah, Buddy Holly,’ I said.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.’
But there was no aggression in her tone and pretty soon she was telling me, in that extraordinary voice, that Peggy Sioux was only her pretend name. Her parents had been well into their forties when she was born so they saw her as a gift from Manitou and named her Thing Called Love. It turned out to be an apt name because, when she was saving to come to the UK, she had to work and the only vacancies on the reservation were for croupiers or escorts. Escorts earned lots more and so the name Thing Called Love took on an extra resonance.
She’d lit the green cylinder and she and Dinsdale were passing it to one another, sucking in great lungfuls of the dung-flavoured smoke. They offered it to me but I could see the effect it was already having on them so I decided not to risk it. By the time we got back to his place they were well away. But, for Thing Called Love, it wasn’t enough. She went through to the kitchen and called back ‘Dinsdale darling, where did you put the microtome?’
‘By the Bran Flakes,’ he shouted and, almost at once, she reappeared with a lump of whitish meat, a cutting board, some assorted herbs and spices and a scalpel-like instrument. She put the meat, which I could now see was a brain, on the board and began slicing into it.
Dinsdale was clearly excited. Apparently, so he told me later, this was the ultimate high. Depending on what memories the brain’s previous owner had, eating it could take you into all sorts of unanticipated places. I watched as the microtome made a further pass through the brain tissue, barely a whisper as it took a paper-thin slice. She flicked it onto the cutting board and seasoned it with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a hint of garlic and a sprinkling of sage leaves. She then quadranted it, wrapped the seasoned side round a plump sea scallop, stood up, and beckoned us to follow her.
We went through to the kitchen where she turned on the gas. I heard Dinsdale suck in a quick breath.
‘Oh my God,’ he said. ‘Is this going to be …?’
He stopped. Thing Called Love smiled and nodded. I was lost. What was the question? Too many weird things were happening. My brain switched off. I felt foreign and longed for a return to simple phrases, things I could understand. Even some of Dinsdale’s crap poetry would do.
‘What’s happening?’ I said, pointing to the meat. ‘What is this, Thing Called Love?’
‘Sssshhhh,’ said Dinsdale. ‘She’s going to release the phlogiston.’
She stuck a fork into the parcel of meat and held it over the gas ring. The flames licked around it and danced over it, their colour changing as they consumed the fats and oils. Dinsdale, way out of it by now, was making the sort of noises teenage boys try to stifle as they leaf through old copies of Asian Babes in their bedrooms. Thing Called Love was in a sort of trance, too. She trailed her fingers through the flames rising from the meat, muttering ‘Phlogiston’ over and over again.
‘What’s phlogiston?’ I whispered to Dinsdale.
He simply pointed to the flames.
‘They are,’ he said.
‘But … but I thought it was only a hypothetical substance,’ I said. ‘I thought Lavoisier proved it didn’t exist.’
‘Banjaxed,’ said Dinsdale. ‘David Bowie, Guinness, Halley’s comet, eggs.’
They were both in another dimension, neither seeming to know I was there, both transfixed by the look and smell of the flaming brain with its inner scallop. It was when they began eating it that I left. They didn’t even notice. I could see that this woman was very dangerous indeed.
Dinsdale was still being a whale, making those stupid noises.
‘Ever hear anything of Peggy Sioux?’ I asked, trying to deflect his attention from being a tidal behemoth.
‘All the time,’ he said.
‘What d’you mean?’ I said.
He tapped his head.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘I’m with her. She’s with me. Always. Forever.’
‘Bloody romantics,’ I said.
‘No. I mean literally,’ he said. ‘She needed a bit of my brain. I said that was OK. I got the surgeon to take a slice off while I was under anaesthetic for the penis extension. So now, I never see her, but we do it all the time. We’re insatiable, both of us.’
‘What d’you mean?’ I said.
‘Easy,’ he said. ‘I know when she’s eating my brain. I feel it. I know she feels it, too. Even as all trace of sentience spins hopelessly into chaotic darkness I sense her pearly teeth crushing my neurones by their millions, feel her hot impetuous breath which used to caress my skin so softly - when I had a skin - and the thought sparkles into renascent consciousness: by this means I penetrate her very being, leaving her in rapturous melodic spasms that will sweep, soft, sensually over her carapace, a metronome of desire and despair. All sensation a pulsating prelude to a pregnancy test.’
I’d had enough.
‘Dins,’ I said. ‘You’ve always talked shite, but this is more excremental than I’ve got words for.’
I pushed him overboard. That was the last time I ever tried writing on Tantilly.
Sunday, 20 June 2010
If you're new to this blog, this particular posting won't make sense unless you read the previous one, in which I unwittingly asked for the ingredients for a blog. I should have known better. So the blog which follows is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events described herein are products of the imagination of the author and some of his more or less deranged friends. All is fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Oh, and any material which seems to resemble that of other writers is straightforward plagiarism.
I think I’ve spoken before about research for The Figurehead being practical (wood carving classes, sailing on a square-rigger) as well as bookish. But it doesn’t always work. When I started writing it, a few years back, I still had my boat, Tantilly. She was moored in Findhorn Bay and, as well as sailing her out on the Moray Firth with the Black Isle's mountains as a backdrop, I loved just sitting at the moorings and relaxing. I once thought it might be interesting to take the laptop out and try writing some of the sea-going passages while I was on board. Big mistake.
It was OK at first. The water was flat calm so I could type quickly and easily. ‘The Chester River snakes inexorably toward the bay,’ I wrote, ‘narrows bleeding into broader expanses until the silver-grey fresh water bleeds and twines with the turgid march of the tidal behemoth waiting at the mouth’. (I rather liked the idea of a ‘tidal behemoth’ and made a mental note to give it a story of its own one day.) I thought for a second, looking at the glassy water, then wrote some more.
‘We'd upped anchor early, the sky threatening, sails pulling hard on a downhill run, lifting, twisting in a gut-wrenching swivel to slam hard into the next short swell...’ Bloody hell, this was good stuff. I read the passage again, out loud this time, feeling the words on my tongue. It was a mistake. I heard a sudden bubbling followed by a gasp and the squeaking of rubber against the hull. Bloody Dinsdale again.
Dinsdale is OK. He’s a sort of friend and he’s always trying to pick my brains about his writing. I’m always happy to help other writers when I can, but Dinsdale’s different. You’ve heard of Method actors – well, Dinsdale is a Method poet. If he wants to write an ode to daffodils, he spends a week lying on the grass and, when there’s a breeze, waving his hands a bit. His haiku on a rainbow, which he called ‘a phantasm of colour’, involved him standing under his shower for a day with a torch shining through the droplets. And it took him two months to recover from his preparations for a sonnet on necrophilia.
Anyway, it was Dinsdale – wet-suited and treading water beside the boat.
‘It’s fate,’ he said.
‘You and me. What we’re writing.’
‘I don’t get it,’ I said.
‘Your tidal behemoth,’ he said. ‘That’s me. I’m writing a prose poem about a whale. Want to hear some?’
I didn’t, but I knew I’d have to at some point, so I hauled him on board and he sat in the stern.
‘All is green-blue,’ he said. ‘The water flows past my massive brow, while my powerful tail propels me forward into the plankton bloom.’
I was about to suggest that his tail could hardly propel him backward when he started making weird whale noises.
‘Weeeeeehoooooooofrrrrkkkkkkk...... the joy of being flows through the green-blue world,’ he sang. ‘TkTkTkTkTkTkTkTk frrrrr eeeeeeeeee tKtKtK.....it will always be so.’
‘OK Dins,’ I said. ‘First, you’re sounding more like a dolphin than a whale and…’
But he was gripped by his inspiration.
‘I sometimes catch sight of birds swimming in the thin air as I surface to blow,’ he said, ‘and wonder at their stupidity, living in an element that provides so little flotation’.
Ah, there it was – the word that gave him away every time. Flotation. Ever since his brief affair with a Native American student who’d come to Aberdeen to complete her PhD thesis on Mythic Pleomorphic Asymmetrical Koaniform Anagrams in the works of Enid Blyton, he’d been hooked on some of the substances she used to induce the trances she needed to help her overcome the crushing boredom of academia. According to her, she entered a world of ‘flotation’ and she often took Dinsdale with her. They rose through layers of vanishing consciousness until they reached the ‘portal to universal intelligence’ (her words), indulged in several versions of excess and eventually dropped back down into reality and its attendant bitterness.
(End of part one. Next time – we meet Dinsdale’s student friend, toy with cannibalism, and encounter … phlogiston!)
Thursday, 17 June 2010
OK, here’s a thought. I feel guilty for having copped out so frequently and I know that millions of people world-wide are probably having a crisis of faith at having been deserted so selfishly by their guru. (But let me just remind those whose faith is teetering that even gurus have to earn a living.) Anyway, back to the guilt. Back also to a talk/workshop I gave last night to a talented, energetic group of writers whose input into the main exercise was enthusiastic and highly entertaining. From names, settings, jobs and objects randomly chosen they created a series of characters and incidents all of which could have been developed into absorbing, readable stories if there’d been time. I hope they had as much fun as I did with it all. I drove home (40-odd miles) feeling exhilarated by their creativity and I woke this morning buzzing with ideas about how we could have taken the workshop further and got into such things as the details of opening paragraphs and twists in the tails of their tales.
I wondered if that would work for a blog. Now this is me setting myself up for a huge fall but I’d be interested to see whether it’s possible to use a similar technique to produce not a crime story but a blog. I’m still busy with the two books but it’s important to take an hour or so off from them from time to time just to make sure my approach to them stays fresh. My suggestion, then, is that I should write a posting that combines random elements. I don’t mean I should write a story but that I should – let’s say ‘simulate’ – a blog. But the question then is, where do I get the random elements? I can’t generate them myself because, even if I was honest, there might be some subconscious aspect influencing my choice. So what’s the answer?
Well, you are. I’m suggesting that, as a comment, you simply challenge me with a word, a name, a theme, a setting or whatever and I’ll try writing a blog around a selection of them. If you like, we could even make sure the selection itself is randomised somehow. The problem is that there are untold hordes of you and most of you are writers so if you all contributed something, the length of the posting would make the whole internet crash and ensure that the two books never got written. Realistically, though, despite my claims of gurudom and world domination, I know that my readers are few and mainly visit out of sympathy, so I don’t anticipate excess.
So it’s up to you. I can now sit back and wait for the inevitable sagebrush silence.
Tuesday, 15 June 2010
I get by with a little help from my friends. This time, it's Jean Henry Mead, who started me doing this blogging stuff in the first place. A while ago, I said that Jean was welcome to contribute a guest blog any time and, with me still skulking about and failing to produce the goods and Jean's latest book just out, the time seemed perfect. So, Jean, it's all yours.
When I first began interviewing mystery novelists for my blog site, Mysterious People, I had no idea they would wind up in a book, although I had published three other books of interviews with Western and Hollywood screen writers, politicians, artists and ordinary people who had accomplished extraordinary things.
So it made sense that a book about mystery writers was in order, but who would publish interviews that had already appeared online? Bestselling novelists such as Carolyn Hart, Jeffrey Deaver, Louise Penny and John Gilstrap undoubtedly sold the book. Three publishers were interested and I decided to go with Poisoned Pen Press, the number two mystery publisher in the U.S. Coincidentally, quite a few of PPP’s authors had already been interviewed.
Because mysteries appear in a variety of subgenres, I divided the writers according to their specialties: the traditional mystery or cozy, historicals, suspense and thriller novels, crime, police procedurals, private eyes and senior sleuths (sometimes called “geezer lit”). There are also medical thrillers, romantic suspense as well as science fiction mysteries and the niche novels which cover endless subjects. I had no idea there was such diversity until I started categorizing them.
Those I’d interviewed had fortunately written articles about various aspects of publishing, including writing tips, marketing and promotional advice, and their opinions on the current state of the publishing industry, among other topics. So the book is a good read for aspiring mystery writers as well as readers. I can say that objectively because I didn’t write the book, I just asked the questions.
Carolyn Hart, bestselling author of the Henrie O and Death on Demand series, talks about her new protagonist, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, who returns to earth as a ghost to anonymously unravel complicated mysteries. John Gilstrap explains why a bestselling novelist still holds down a fulltime job and international bestseller Rick Mofina provides sixteen great tips for writing thriller novels as well as discussing his struggle to the top of the charts.
A number of Canadian and UK authors share their publishing views as well as comparing books from their countries with those of the US. Suspense novelist Paul Johnston writes from his native Scotland as well as his home in Greece while Tim Hallinan divides his time between Thailand and southern California, writing much of his work in Bangkok cafes. Gillian Phillip writes YA mystery novels from Barbados and her native Scottish highlands, and international airline pilot Mark W. Danielson composes his suspense novels during layovers in various parts of the world. One of my favorite interviews was with Bill Kirton, whose humor and compassion led to an Internet friendship. I also enjoy his writing.
Another English native, Carola Dunn, writes historical mysteries about her countrymen as does Rhys Bowen, who lives and writes in California about historical English royals. Other historical novelists include Larry Karp, who writes about Ragtime music and the people who made the genre popular during its heyday. And Beverle Graves Myers, who brings operatic mysteries to life from eighteen century Venice.
Jeff Cohen, Tim Maleeny, Morgan St. James, Phillice Bradner and Carl Brookins add humor to their mysterious plots, so prepare to laugh when you pick up their books. There are police procedurals, medical thrillers and romantic suspense novelists represented here as well as niche mysteries designed for readers who love dogs, scrapbooking, zoos, the Arizona desert, space shuttles, weight loss clinics, actors, designer gift baskets and other specialty subjects.
Nonfiction books about the mystery genre round out this eclectic collection with Edgar winner E.J. Warner, Agatha winner Chris Roerden, Lee Lofland, Jeffrey Marks, and small press publishers Vivian Zabel and Tony Burton. So there’s something for everyone who enjoys some or all the mysterious subgenres.
The book is currently only available on Kindle at: http://tiny.cc/zsgsl as well as Barnes & Noble and Sony readers.
Sunday, 13 June 2010
I'm still spending all my time on these two new books and feeling guilty about not writing proper postings. Also, the publisher who liked my sci-fi/fantasy stories wants to go ahead with them but has suggested a slightly different approach (which I think is right). Which means that I'll be starting that when the present job's finished (i.e. in the Autumn). So, with The Figurehead due out any minute now, I thought I'd give you a taste of it so that you can decide whether to bother getting your local library to order two or three hundred copies. You can, of course, read more of it free if you send a blank email to email@example.com. Anyway, here's the opening.
Bessie Rennie was on her usual Sunday morning beach trawl. It was the one day of the week when she could comb the sands in peace. Most of the other residents of Aberdeen were either tucked up in their granite villas, curled in blankets and sacks in the poorer areas of town or lying about the alleys and closes around the Mercat Cross, sleeping off the mayhem of a normal Saturday night. The prostitutes in Mason’s Court were having a well earned rest and none of the Castle Street traders would be setting up their stalls on the Sabbath. The yards hung motionless on the masts of the ships in the harbor, some of them with sails still bent on them and gathered up into tight bunches. The decks were empty and the quays deserted, echoing back the clicks and rustles of the rigging in the quiet air. Any citizens who were up and about would be getting ready for church. Bessie was safe to forage.
She was looking for whatever she could get but hoping, as usual, that one of the frequent wrecks along the north east coast would send her a body or two, their pockets still holding purses, watches or anything that might persuade a pawnbroker to part with a couple of shillings. So far, she’d been wasting her time. With a half moon still bright in the sky, she’d started near the river Don and worked her way south towards the Dee, collecting just three bottles which might fetch some pennies in Ma Cameron’s public house and a waistcoat which was so far gone that not even she would think of wearing it. Her habitual muttering to herself was becoming progressively more blasphemous as she castigated the citizens of Aberdeen for being so sparing with corpses on their beach.
She’d almost reached the pier at the end of the harbor when she saw the sort of bundle she’d been hoping for. It was high on the beach near the wall which ran along the north east edge of the village of Footdee, protecting it from the sea, the sands and the big easterlies that snarled in from Scandinavia. She peered hard as she climbed through the soft sand towards the dark shape, fearing that it might be just another tangle of tarred ropes or seaweed that the tide had flung ashore. But her breath came faster and a smile cracked her leathery features as she saw that the long dark cylinder stretching out from the side of the bundle had a hand on the end of it, and that the twisted material at its seaward end was indeed a pair of trousers which clearly still had legs in them.
As she came closer, her smile developed into a little cackle of secret delight that her patience had been rewarded. It was a man. But he was dressed not in the rags of a sailor or the tatters of a wrecked mariner who’d been floating a long while in hard seas, but in a pair of woolen broadfall trousers with a cravat at his throat and a full jacket. Over this was a heavy overcoat and, hanging loosely around his neck, a light-colored scarf. From Bessie’s perspective, more items of clothing meant more pockets. Then, as she stopped beside the body and bent to begin her search, her excitement was stilled as quickly as it had been generated. This man came from no shipwreck. His hair, still wet, was plastered across most of his face but she recognized him at once. It was Jimmie Crombie, the shipwright from Waterloo Quay. His sodden clothes were not the ones he would wear to work but the sort of thing he’d put on for a night out.
Bessie could guess what had brought him here. It was a familiar story. Too much Saturday drink, a staggering walk home along Regent and Waterloo Quays and, in the darkness before the moon had appeared, a stumble over the edge into the harbor. The river would then quickly grab him and drag him along the channel beside the north pier, slamming him against the rocks that regularly claimed ships trying to make their way in or out of the harbor mouth, and then twirling him round the corner onto the beach. It had happened to so many over the months and years that, at last, there was talk of erecting pillars and chains to guard the quay’s edge. They would be too late for Jimmie, though. His jacket and shirt had been torn open on the top left hand side of his chest and Bessie saw the scrapings and batterings he’d suffered as the river had bounced him along its rocky banks and down into its depths. The flesh of his face, shoulder and chest was raw, shining silver and black in the growing light, the skin peeling back from it here and there and the cuts and grazes stretching down out of sight inside his shirt.
For Bessie, it was a dilemma. If he’d fallen in after a night’s drinking, the odds were that he’d still be carrying some money. But this was not just some strange soul who’d tumbled from the deck of a passing barque; it was one of her own. And everyone knew she never missed a Sunday morning on the beach so she would have to tell someone that she’d found him. She stood looking at the watch chain that stretched across his belly and wondered what to do.
Sunday, 6 June 2010
I owe what will no doubt be the best bits of this blog to various pupils at unidentified schools and to whomever collected the examples I’ll be giving. I don’t know any of their names but I’d like to acknowledge their genius from the start. They’re all actual images used by the pupils in their essays. Most of all, they’re delicious examples of the wonderful effects of even the simplest words.
Critics like to categorise literature and identify movements and schools such as Symbolism, Romanticism, Dadaism and so on, so I’ve grouped them artificially in a pretence that they’re classifiable. It also allows me to pretend that I’m actually writing a blog that makes some sense (whereas I know I’m not). So I’m suggesting that the first three belong to the school of Balzac and Zola, the Realists.
• His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.
• The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.
• Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left York at 6:36 p.m. travelling at 55 mph, the other from Peterborough at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
You see? Factual, undeniable truths. And the next three, drawing their similes from the natural world are just as undeniably Naturalists.
• He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
• She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
• The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a lamppost.
Then come some budding social commentators, again with similes, this time anchoring their work in the gritty sociology of kitchen sink truths.
• It was a working class tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with their power tools.
• The plan was simple, like my brother Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
And finally, three writers who are clearly placing themselves in the tradition of the great Raymond Chandler.
• She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
• McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a paper bag filled with vegetable soup.
• It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
This is just a selection – I don’t think my imagination would ever be able to match them, so back to work.