Cards on the table. I love paperbacks. New ones. The smell, the feel. The glossiness of the cover (or mattness – is that a word?). I love being in Waterstones, or any bookshop really, WH Smith being the exception (they don’t know what they are at the moment, do they? Bookshop? Fast Food outlet? Bric-a-brac shop?). Bookshops with ambience. That’s what I’m talking about.
I can spend hours in bookshops – spend, not waste, note – and I’m still bemoaning the closure of Reading’s best bookstore, Waterstones, in the Oracle. Why did it close? It was a perfect bookstore; lengthy, walk-through (you had to walk through it to get anywhere in the Oracle – well, I had to anyway), well laid out, friendly staff. It even had a Costa, for goodness’ sake. I mean, what more do you need?
Now we’re left with the Waterstones in the main street. It just doesn’t have that same vibe. I don’t know why. Anyway, I digress. Paperbacks, they’re the thing. Yes, I sell eBooks as well as paperbacks, and the format is very popular. They’re handy, friendly on the purse/wallet, and eminently practical. It’s not that I don’t like the eBook format, it’s just that, given the choice, I’d always go for the physical version, not the electronic. The powers that be tell us that the paperback is enjoying a resurgence, and that eBook sales are in decline. I think that we’re finally getting a natural balance between the two.
Audio is a different kettle of fish. For me it all depends on the skill of the narrator. If I like his/her voice, no problem. If not, it’s an instant switch-off. A few of my novels are available on Audio, and wow, what a great job the narrators have done! It’s amazing how the right voice can bring a story to life. Wayne Farrell, my narrator for the first DCI Brendan Moran novel, Black December, almost epitomises the way I heard the detective speak in my head as I wrote the book. Have a listen.
Audio is great for car journeys, and pretty good for an alternative to TV if you’ve watched too many Emmerdales in a row. You have, haven’t you? Look, it’s no use denying it. Help is available, but you have to want to kick the habit yourself, OK?
Anyway, what’s your poison? Paperback, eBook or Audio? (I’m not even going to mention hardback … dang, I mentioned it …)
Morse has his opera. Banks has a wider repertoire of taste: everything from Miles Davis to classical, to the Grateful Dead. Is music important in a novel? As a musician myself (I’m a drummer – hey, no drummer jokes, OK? 🙂 ), I was a little surprised recently when I realised that music isn’t strongly represented in the DCI Brendan Moran novels. I thought about this for a while and came to the conclusion that music and musicians, especially contemporary music/musicians, are rarely portrayed with any degree of accuracy in modern crime fiction, be it TV drama or literature. And I think that’s why – at least so far – I’ve been cautious about introducing musical elements into the storyline. OK, so I know what makes musicians tick, but it just seems to me that when, as an author or scriptwriter, you try to capture some kind of musical zeitgeist, it all goes horribly wrong.
Case in point. I remember watching an episode of a TV crime series (which I shall charitably keep anon.) in which a group of old sixties musicians were getting back together (or ‘trying to get it together, man’) for a reunion tour. It was horrendous, ghastly and stereotypical. Every cliche in the book (‘scuse the pun) was trotted out. The musicians all spoke in quasi-stoned pseudo-hippy language that, frankly, made me shake my head in disbelief. The writer clearly didn’t know much about contemporary music, especially the minutiae of how a band functions in everyday life. The episode quickly degenerated into a wildly exaggerated and unbelievable pastiche. The wigs were hilarious, though.
I’m thinking about this as I write. Music is a soundscape for our current situation in life, isn’t it? Time and place is recalled, often with great intensity, by the opening bars of a favourite song, or a faintly-discerned chorus left behind in the slipstream of a passing car. I can’t listen to certain pieces of music because they’re just too evocative, too nostalgic. And that might have a bearing on my reluctance to apply a little musical colour to my novels. One person’s happy memory may recall another’s lowest point. And whichever way the reader reacts, the musical intrusion could end up being just that – an intrusion. As authors we want the reader to be glued to both character and plot, with no distractions.
Hm. So, perhaps I could invent a favourite musician for my main character? But why stop there? I could invent a whole string of violin concertos, or a completely fictitious top 20 chart. Without Kanye West. But then that wouldn’t ring true with the reader, either.
I think the answer is to aim down the middle. Maybe keep your characters’ tastes fairly general. I have a friend for whom the sixties seemed to have passed by without a note of music being played or heard. He’s simply not into music at all. You can mention Woodstock or the Beatles and he’ll be with you, but deviate from the big names and he’s immediately lost. Gentle Giant? New Riders of the Purple Sage? Atomic Rooster? Forget it.
Yep, aim down the middle, I reckon. Keep the novel’s musical backdrop unobtrusive but gently atmospheric. That’s the way forward.
In other words, no sharps or flats – just a good stereo balance.
Today’s little known musical fact: There’s no chorus in REM’s Losing My Religion.
So you do want a drummer joke:
Q. How can you tell when a drummer’s at the door?
A. He doesn’t know when to come in.
(I don’t get it)
Imagine the scene – build the tension …
So, here’s a short bit from the novel in progress, ‘Silent as the Dead’.
An armed gunman is stalking a young girl in an underground car park. Outer doors are locked. Two cops outside. Backup (ARU) running late. What do they do?
DC Bola Odunsi was a good cop and he knew it. He’d had a few wobbles, sure, particularly after DS Steve Banner’s murder and the ensuing DCI Wilder debacle, but he’d got over that. He was on the good guys’ side now, and proud of it. He and Tess worked great together and Bola had a lot of time for his tenacious, sassy partner. Thing was, there was an armed guy in the building and his sense of … well, rightness, wouldn’t allow him to rank Tess lower than himself in the safety and due diligence stakes. That meant she stayed outside while he went in for the girl – if there was a way in.
But it wouldn’t be easy. Tess wasn’t one to hang fire and he’d have to insist. They were standing at the rear of the apartment block, by the concrete ramp which led to the electronic car park door.
Which was shut.
Their heads were close together. Bola said:
‘You can open these from inside. Button to open, button to close.’
Tess looked the metallic slats up and down. ‘Helpful.’
Bola made a frustrated face. ‘What I mean is, if she can get to the door and hit the button, she’s out.’
Tess shook her head. ‘He’s in there, close. He has a gun. He’ll pick her off as soon as she breaks cover.’
‘Maybe he won’t shoot her. Maybe he just wants to put the frighteners on.’
‘We don’t know enough about what’s going on here, Bola. We can’t take that chance.’
‘So what, then?’
‘I’ll talk to him.’
Bola shook his head. ‘Uh uh. No way.’
‘Then we check with the boss.’ Tess thumbed her radio.
Charlie’s voice: ‘Go ahead, Tess.’
Can you feel the tension?
I suffer from that annoying condition called bruxism – where your teeth clench involuntarily during the night, rather like the Clashing Rocks (The Symplegades or Planctae?) which tried to crush Jason and his merry bunch of Argonauts during their quest for The Golden Fleece. Sometimes my tongue fills in for Jason and his crew and blood is spilled. It’s annoying to say the least. The other problem, apart from potential tongue injuries, is the headache which greets me after a particularly bad night of unruly clashing. It’s not a headache as such, more a skull-ache. Painkillers don’t touch it and the only thing to do is get on with the day and let it fade gradually (or not, as the case may be).
And so, it is with imaginable joy and delight in my heart, dear reader, (yes, and head) that I sit at my desk this grey morning in the Royal County to continue writing ‘Silent as the Dead’.
But lessons can be learned from infirmity, right? Jason could either have set course for Scylla and Charybdis, the legendary sea monsters, or the Clashing Rocks. Not much of a choice. From Jason’s dilemma we gain several colloquial idioms: having to choose between two evils, between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea, and many more. So Jason was going to face difficulties whichever direction he decided to sail.
Writing is a bit like that. Should the plot move this way, or that way? If that way, then what happens to X or Y? If this way, then Z needs to be revisited and rewritten.
Anyway, Jason got some unusual help in the end. A bit of a Deus ex machina situation if ever there was one – I mean do gods really rise from the deep in real life to save us from danger? Am I to expect a tap on the window from Hermes this morning? That’s a whole new question and this is turning into a Ronnie Corbett story so maybe it’s time to stop.
Don’t worry, my bruxism isn’t due to my being an author. Writing isn’t that stressful.
(… continues to sound of gnashing teeth …)
I find myself returning to favourite books I’ve read – sometimes often – and which I therefore know very well. It’s not that I want to relive the story necessarily, although that might be part of it. No, the main reason is that I want to spend time with the characters. I want to renew old acquaintances, to enjoy their company once again. I want to row serenely down the Thames with J and Harris and George in that timeless classic, Three Men in a Boat. I want to laugh at the old jokes and situations, follow Harris around the Hampton Court maze as he leads a gaggle of bewildered day-trippers round and round, always ending up at the centre. I want to hitch a ride with Paxton and O’Neill in their flimsy WWI aeroplane in Derek Robinson’s brilliant air drama, War Story. I enjoy meeting up from time to time with my friend Gustad Noble, as he performs his early morning kusti in the Khodadad building’s compound; Gustad is one of my favourites – he’s absolutely real to me. So all credit and much kudos to the brilliant Rohinton Mistry for introducing me to Gustad, even though time and considerable distance (plus the fact that Gustad never really existed) will always separate me from the Noble family.
This last novel, Such a Long Journey, is for me a definitive work of characterisation. I feel such empathy with Gustad and his many difficulties. With each turn of the page I experience more of the heat and tense atmosphere of this fictional but true-to-life nineteen-seventies India, as it struggles to survive under the crushing weight of Indira Gandhi’s turbulent rule. I love Gustad for his indomitable spirit. He doesn’t get everything right – indeed much of the time he gets it very wrong. But that’s life, isn’t it? I love his flaws, not just his better side. He’s a good guy to spend time with.
So when I’m writing, I try to be mindful of this. Good characters are complex, contrary, sometime unpredictable, always fascinating. Even the minor roles should be memorable. My protagonist, DCI Brendan Moran, is a very interesting guy. His background is unusual and nothing in his life is particularly straightforward. Moran’s colleagues also struggle with various burdens and difficulties – but it’s how they deal with these which makes for an absorbing and page-turning read. Like Gustad Noble, I may not always get it right, but that’s what I’m aiming for when I’m putting a novel together.
Well-drawn characters are a mirror to our own souls. In their daily struggles we see possible versions of ourselves, and thereby find answers to the problems and difficulties each of us face in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.
This is one of many blog posts which will run for four days from 15th-19th August, 2013, celebrating Roman historical fiction…
…and there’s a prize for the most interesting comment!
My novel, ‘The Serpent & The Slave’, is set in Britannia, in 367AD, a turbulent time of invasion which hinted at Rome’s loosening grip on our sceptred isle.
Below are my notes from the afterword which I hope you will find intriguing!
At the time of the great ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ of 367 AD, Valentinian was the emperor of the West. Historians reckon that such an invasion would have required a coordinator of some stature; someone familiar not only with the structure and strength of Roman military deployments but also with a keen understanding of which political issues were likely to affect the emperor’s judgement. Paulus Catena certainly fits the bill and it seemed rather a waste to allow the man known as The Chain to rest in peace after his execution in Africa.
In terms of the ‘look and feel’ of fourth century Britain, I have tried to paint as accurate a picture as possible.
The provinces were divided as described, Corinium being the capital of Britannia Prima. Interestingly, there was indeed a fourth century governor by the name of Lucius Septimius, although I cannot claim that the character described in ‘The Serpent and the Slave’ bears any resemblance to the original, save for the fact that the real Lucius was also a dedicated pagan. We know this because he is noted as making an ‘almost aggressively pagan dedication at Corinium’ by Peter Salway in his excellent work, ‘Roman Britain’. The Alamann chieftain, Fraomar, also has a real counterpart in an Alamannic chieftain who was sent to Britain in 372. Salway confirms this to be a known fact and I quote: ‘Fraomar was in fact sent to Britain as a deliberate act of Imperial favour by Valentinian 1 as a military tribune to command a normal Roman unit of Alamanni already stationed in the island’.
The fourth century was a time of religious change. Constantine had legalized and formalized Christianity during his reign in the early years of the century but there was still a strong pagan tradition, particularly amongst the civil magistracy. The short reign of Magnentius whose tolerance, even encouragement, of pagan worship caused many to ‘come out’ and resume their old ways of worship led directly to the Pauline persecutions when Constantius gained control of Britain. No doubt there were many who simply continued their pagan practices in secret. Valentinian himself was of Christian persuasion, although I suspect that he, like so many others, could best be described as having a ‘nominal’ rather than a ‘life-changing’ faith, such as demonstrated by the character of Freia. Many slaves, the downtrodden members of a corrupt society, embraced the new religion as being one that offered hope, salvation and equality. What more could a slave wish for than this? Small wonder then that many found the answer they sought in the person of the humble rabbi from Galilee, Jesus Christ, the chosen one of God.
The Roman Army
The army saw many structural changes during the 3rd and 4th Centuries. The legions were redeployed and reabsorbed into two distinct groups, the limitanei, operating on the frontiers and the comitatenses, originally stationed with the emperor, but later becoming more of a mobile field army to be deployed as the need arose. The thinking behind this change was based on the premise that a reasonably well maintained border force combined with a high quality mobile army would be the most effective way to deal with the many and varied threats to the empire. Britannia did suffer from a degradation of troops as demand across the channel became more pressing, but the double defeats in 367AD of the Saxon Shore Count, Nectarides, and the dux Britanniarum, Fullofaudes, left the country vulnerable in the extreme to the invaders. Many Roman troops deserted after the defeats and took to wandering the countryside, no doubt undertaking a little plunder and pillage themselves. In ‘The Serpent and the Slave’, the character Scapulus and his men had awarded themselves ‘leave of absence’ from the army, and this is indeed what many of the army remnant actually did. It was only when Count Theodosius arrived late in 367AD and offered free pardon, food and supplies to any renegade troops wishing to give themselves up that the Britannic army began to reassemble itself into some sort of order. For the hapless ordinary folk of Britannia, particularly those living in the countryside, it must have been a very unpleasant and trying time to have lived through.
Excerpt from ‘The Serpent & The Slave’
The Rhine Frontier, Gaul – Sept 367AD
In the headquarters tent of the Rhine campaign, the Emperor Valentinian, arguably the most powerful man in the known world, leaned back with some discomfort on the curule, an elaborately carved oak seat inlaid with ivory. The chair had been especially commissioned for his imperial behind, and was the only obvious indication of his status, except perhaps for the imperial purple of his cloak. The emperor’s back was playing up again and he was not in a good mood. ‘Well?’ He barked at the tribune.
Well, don’t just stand there like a wilting vine, man. Show him in!’
‘Caesar.’ The tribune saluted and signalled to the tent guard.
The tent flap opened and a man entered. He had a pinched, hunted appearance in marked contrast to his speech, which was direct and confident. ‘You sent for me, Caesar?’
‘I did.’ The emperor stood up carefully with a grimace of pain. The seat was murdering his vertebrae. He drew a hand wearily across his eyes. ‘Nipius. I seem to remember that you had a hankering for foreign travel.’
‘Caesar?’ Nipius frowned.
‘I’ve had an interesting communication from Britannia. From Septimius in Corinium.’
Nipius raised an eyebrow quizzically.
‘They have, apparently, in custody a member of the royal Alamannic line. One named Fraomar. Ring any bells?’
‘Chnodomar’s brother. Went missing after Strasbourg.’
Valentinian nodded approvingly. ‘The same.’
‘We were outnumbered three to one,’ Nipius recalled, ‘but Julian led us to a great victory.’
Valentinian allowed himself a smile. ‘His gods certainly seemed to be with him that day. But I heard it was the Magister Equitum who deserves the credit for the victory.’
Nipius bowed stiffly. ‘Caesar is too kind.’
‘A shame that the victory of Strasbourg was marred by Fraomar’s escape.’
For the first time, Nipius seemed uncomfortable. Rain began to drum softly on the leather covering of the tent roof as Valentinian continued:
‘But you are a popular man, Nipius. Your exploits are legendary. You have – what can I say– ’ Valentinian stroked his chin thoughtfully, ‘a loyal following?’
‘I am fortunate enough to have the respect of my men, yes Caesar.’
Valentinian grunted. ‘Well, naturally I thought of you for this little job.’
‘What does Caesar command?’
‘A simple ‘go fetch’ job, nothing more. Give you a break. God knows you probably need one. And a chance to set the record straight.’
Nipius smiled thinly. ‘I am most grateful to Caesar.’
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from ‘The Serpent & the Slave’, by Scott Hunter
Here are the other links for this Blog hop:
Dominus mihi adjutor