Diary of an author – in bits

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).

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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 …)

 

The first three novels in the popular DCI Brendan Moran series are available in one volume, The Irish Detective, via the Amazon and Kobo bookstores

Audiobooks hit the mainstream!

OK, so it’s been a while. But every so often a man needs to diversify a little to placate the bank manager, if you know what I mean.

No? Not to worry, on with the news:

Firstly, the fabulous Catherine O’Brien has completed audio narration of ‘The Ley Lines of Lushbury’ – available NOW from Audible/Amazon

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Secondly, the awesome Wayne Farrell is, even as we speak, putting the finishing touches to the first in the DCI Brendan Moran Crime series to hit Audio, ‘Black December’ – available very soon from Audible/Amazon – of course, in the meantime you can always read the paperback or Kindle or Kobo versions … spoiled for choice, I’d say. More news very soon …

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The Past isn’t over. Yet.

The Wonder of Rome

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.

2013-Blog-Hop-Rome-3b

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’.

Religion

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

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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:

http://pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.co.uk/

http://elisabethstorrs.blogspot.com.au/

http://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/writeblog/

http://mark-patton.blogspot.co.uk/

http://www.ruthdownie.com

http://wordpress.mcscott.co.uk

http://www.frednath.com/blog

www.eaglehasfallen.com

http://teacake421.livejournal.com

http://themasterofverona.typepad.com/the_master_of_verona/

http://alison-morton.com/blog/

http://petreaburchard.com/blog-2/

http://timhodkinson.blogspot.com/

www.eaglehasfallen.com

Http://sjat.wordpress.com

 

Dominus mihi adjutor

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DCI Brendan Moran # 3 – a taster…

DCI Brendan Moran returns in the sequel to ‘Creatures of Dust’. The title is ‘Death Walks Behind you’ and the novel will be published in early 2015. In the meantime, here is the prologue …

Death Walks Behind You

Death Walks Behind You

Prologue

Linda Harrison wouldn’t have described herself as an outdoor type but she did enjoy her early morning perambulations, a word her husband had mischievously coined to describe her regular forays into Cernham Woods. Linda and Matthew were a dog couple, the proud owners of a hyperactive Cocker Spaniel and a pair of young Boxers. Linda was only too aware that to forgo their morning constitutional would mean that the three would spend the rest of the day tearing the house apart, a reality she’d had to deal with on more than one occasion when illness or practical necessity had conspired to keep her indoors. Matt knew this, of course, but persisted with his teasing as though her morning routine was little more than some selfish indulgence.

‘Pippa! Stop that!’ Her thoughts were interrupted as the young Spaniel plunged into one of Cernham’s many puddles. ‘Out!’ Linda scolded the bitch who was clearly having a wonderful time. ‘Not another bath, I can’t believe it! You are one high maintenance dog, girl.’ Alf and Bennie, the Boxers, sniffed around the puddle’s perimeter. Thank goodness they weren’t water dogs like Pippa.

woodmist
Linda strode on, wrapping her scarf more securely around her neck. Although the year was turning and Spring was imminent the dank air held little pretence of warmth. As she turned onto the path by the farmer’s field she shivered, a long, body-shaking shiver that left her wishing for the warmth of her wood-burning stove. Matt was a great wood cutter and she took comfort in the knowledge that their log pile would last well into the new season. Linda smiled to herself as she thought of her husband’s ritualistic autumn preparations: chopping and splitting, hewing and stacking, his lean, wiry frame stalking the garden, axe in hand and a glint in his eye.

‘Come on, guys!’ she called the dogs after her. There were few folk around this morning, but it was dull and misty so Linda wasn’t particularly surprised. Sensible people would wait for the sun to burn off the mist before braving the elements, besides, many of the dog walkers with whom she came into regular contact only appeared in the woods after the school run, or later in the day before the teatime chores were squared up to. No school runs for us, though, Linda said quietly to herself. At forty-two the sands of time had pretty much run out for Linda and Matt. No amount of IVF, dietary regimes or periods of intense sexual activity had made the slightest difference to her body’s flat refusal to conceive. Still, they had each other, the dogs, a nice house, Matt’s secure job in town. All in all, much to be thankful for.

Footsteps behind interrupted her reverie. She turned and acknowledged the half-grunted ‘morning’ as a cagouled shape walked by, green Wellingtons slapping on the muddy farm path. Not one of the regulars. And no dog. Linda deliberately slowed her pace to put a comfortable distance between herself and the stranger. She never worried about walking on her own, but it was wise to be vigilant. She stopped altogether at the next gap in the hedgerow to watch the mist rolling across the fields. It was a beautiful, almost other-worldly sight. A kite called mournfully for its mate somewhere high above and she felt a warm sweep of contentment. This was England, her England and no one would shift her from it. You could keep the holiday cottages in Tuscany and the South of France. This was her country and she loved it, whatever the weather. Pippa appeared at her feet, sniffing and whimpering. ‘What’s up, girl?’ She bent to stroke the spaniel’s head. ‘Where are the two B’s?’

She peered ahead, looking for the Boxers. No sign. That was unusual; they usually stuck together, never roaming too far as Pippa was prone to do.

‘Alf? Benny?’ She picked up her stride and followed the path away from the field into the woods. ‘Come on, guys, where are you?’ She rounded a corner where the path twisted away towards the chalk pits. Aha. Behind a tree. A flash of movement. ‘Alf?’

As she drew nearer, a shape detached itself from the shadows and blocked her way. The walker she had seen a few minutes ago. Or was it? The face was covered, didn’t look right . . . She drew back in alarm, looked around for her dogs. Where were they when she needed them? The mist was thicker here; for a moment she thought her imagination was playing tricks, but then she saw the figure again just ahead, standing perfectly still. It was shaped like a man, but – somehow it wasn’t right . . .

Linda’s heart was pounding. Should she turn and run? She felt the Boxers’ chain around her neck and her fingers went to unclasp it. The next moment something had reached out of the fog and caught her by the arm.

Linda pulled away with a strength born of sheer terror. She felt fingers grasping at her coat, a brief scrabbling resistance and then she was free, stumbling and flailing through the trees, branches whipping and stinging her face. Don’t look back, she told herself, don’t . . .

She ran until she felt as if her lungs would explode. Disoriented, she came to a halt, pressed her back against the trunk of a silver birch and scanned the woodland for signs of pursuit. The woods were eerily still. Where were the dogs? She daren’t call them. Calm, Lin, calm …Linda’s breath gradually slowed to something approaching normal. Where was she? In her headlong flight she had lost all sense of direction. She began to walk cautiously to where a gap in the trees suggested one of the many walker-trodden paths might intersect with her present location. And then she heard it: the soft crunch of leaves underfoot, the slow searching tread . . .

Oh no, please . . . Linda bent low, darted away into the undergrowth. After a few seconds she recognised where she was; close to one of the smaller chalk pits. She remembered an ancient tree perched on the edge of the pit, its roots forming a knotted cage beneath the lip. If she could find it, slip inside, curl up, cover herself with leaves . . . she almost stumbled over the edge of the pit in her terror. Where was the tree? Was it as she had remembered? Yes …there…

Half slipping, sliding down the chalk face she grabbed at the roots and checked herself. There was just enough space. Heart thumping she squeezed in and lay down in the nest of foliage, sweeping handfuls of leaves over her legs and torso. For a while there was no sound except birdsong, the occasional scamper of a rabbit or squirrel. Then she heard it. Slap, slap, slap . . . marking the perimeter of the chalk pit. She lay still, hardly daring to breath. The footsteps circled once, twice. And then receded.

Linda shivered. How long should she wait? A few minutes, maybe . . . what was that? Something skittering into the chalk pit, snorting, rooting around. A dog . . . oh no, no…

A wet nose appeared through the mesh of roots. A spaniel’s nose. No, Pippa. No . . . She reached for the dog but the bitch backed away, alarmed to find a large moving object half-buried in the mulchy floor of the chalk pit. Pippa barked, and barked again.

No . . .

Linda grabbed at the roots to extricate herself but a cold hand slid between them and caught her deftly by the leg. She screamed and tried to pull back but the grip was inexorable and her voice was muted by the mist. As she was dragged into the open she made a grab for the scarf hiding her attacker’s face but he was strong and strangely elusive, moving with an assured, swaying gracefulness. Her heart skipped in fright as she saw that his head was oddly misshapen, stubby, antler-like protrusions jutting from the skull … then he was behind her, twisting her arm, making her gasp at the sudden, shocking pain. She felt something snap and the pain intensified. Probing, abrasive fingers slid around her neck, squeezing and palpating her flesh. She kicked back once, twice, tried to catch hold of his clothing but he was quick, far too quick and her hands were left clutching at the empty air.

The pressure on her neck increased, her legs thrashed once, twice and then became limp as she gave in to the inevitable.

I’m going to die …

Linda felt resistance go out of her like the final sigh from a pricked balloon; she was floating now, embracing the darkness. Somewhere far away she heard the shrill, whistling call of the Kite as it plunged and dipped in the gusting thermals high above, searching intently for its prey.

 

You can pre-order Death Walks Behind You from the Kobo Bookstore

Modus Operandi …

Or Odius Moperandi, as my Great Uncle Quentin used to say whilst throwing liberal bucketfuls of Flash over the kitchen floor…

Sorry, it must be the heat. Not used to this sort of weather in Blighty.

Anyway, I digress. The question is, ‘How do you write?’.

I don’t mean how as such; I mean, I know you use a laptop or an iPad or something similar (a sheet of paper and a pen? No, really? Is your name Philip Pullman? He of the twisted theology…? Hang on, I’m not going down that route…)

No, I mean ‘How do you write?’

Do you sit for three immobile, disciplined hours, churning it out, or are you like me? One paragraph and I’m up, walking around, talking to myself, scaring the dog or maybe boiling the kettle. (On a bad day I could even be boiling the dog and scaring the kettle).

I have a bad case of restless writer syndrome. I’ve just made that up but I’ve got it big time, for sure.

I prod the keyboard, coax a little dialogue from my characters and then retreat to leave them to it. Am I expecting them to carry on the conversation while I’m away? Who knows? Maybe I’m hoping they’ll sort the plot out for me in my absence.

No chance. When I return, mug in hand and scalded dog in tow, the last words I committed to paper are still there. Followed by a great deal of white space.

And so I write a little more. And then repeat. And so on.

A painful way to write a book? Well it probably is for the dog, granted, but I can’t do it any other way.

Do I need professional help?

Answers on a very small piece of paper to:-

(comments)

PS Here’s a book I actually finished …

Image

End Game . . .

‘I’m slipping into grey.
And I was (in my way) good to you.
And you were good for me.
Bye Bye my love.
Going to play the End Game…’

Ian Anderson – End Game

The relationship between author and reader is a close one  – or should be. You have created a world in which the reader has lived, laughed, cried, been scared (maybe) –  in short, has experienced every emotion going.

So how are your characters going to sign off? How are you going to end it?  There are quite a few choices:

  • Suddenly (an unexpected disaster?)
  • Violently (a sub category of the above)
  • Reflectively
  • Sadly
  • Stoically
  • Philosophically
  • Happily
  • Esoterically (ie you haven’t a clue what’s just happened)
  • Unexpectedly
  • Uncertainly
  • Poetically

You can probably add a lot more to this list!

But returning to my trusty Shakespeare illustrations, old Will was really good at the end game stuff. Often he’d have someone wander on and sum up the play in a few verses, maybe evoking some of the above options, or maybe giving his/her take on the events which have just drawn to a (usually tragic) conclusion.

SH at meet the author

This can also work well in a modern context, where a revealing closing conversation between two leading characters ties things up nicely and leaves you in a satisfied, pondering sort of frame of mind.

As I write Crime novels and thrillers I like to end with the unexpected, or rather ‘the hinted at’, where something the reader has predicted might happen actually does happen, but not necessarily in the way they anticipated.

This works well because it ‘wrong foots’ the reader, and (if a big enough event) may either reinforce or even overturn their understanding of the novel’s theme.

Think of your favourite novel. How did it end? What did you like about the way the author brought the curtain down?

Sebastian Faulks’ powerful novel, ‘The girl at the Lion D’or’ concludes on a note of hope. But boy, do the final few pages make you sweat! I held my breath as the heroine was plunged into the worst despair ever before she finally won through and showed her incredible strength of character; thus was a tragedy averted by sheer will power and determination.  And let me tell you it was SO gripping!

Another of my favourite novelists, Rohinton Mistry, is a master at leading you to the inevitable without you realising it until it actually happens. Read ‘A Fine Balance’ or ‘Family Matters’ (btw, his characterisation is wonderful and very often it’s the characters themselves who dictate their eventual fate).

How about an epilogue? Well, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the pointless. A good epilogue is akin to providing the reader with a kind of literary airlock which prepares them for (and eases their return to) the real world. It can be written in a different style, a different tense. If one doesn’t occur to you naturally, don’t force it! Better no epilogue than an indifferent one.

If I don’t end with the unexpected, I must confess that I tend to the poetic (Will’s influence again!). But only after I have resolved all conflict and tied up loose ends! This is the camera shot that pans back and back and back and allows the reader to catch their breath, relax and enjoy the moment.

Here’s the closer from ‘The Trespass’:-

Towards the east a congregation of clouds was
gathering. Dracup watched the formation coalesce as
a zigzag of white lightning cut the horizon in two. He
rested his head against the padded seat and closed his
eyes. The Chinook flew on, into the eye of the
coming storm.

Over to you! Going to play the End Game…?

Lost the plot?

Do you enjoy plotting? I don’t. Well, let me qualify that – I enjoy it at the beginning of the process when the germ of an idea that captivated me at the breakfast table progresses to a rough (and I mean rough) idea of where the novel is likely to go.  At that point I think: ‘Great. There’s a novel here.’

But somewhere around the end of the first quarter of actually writing the novel, the plot (such as it is) begins to expose its weaknesses and problems. That’s when I stop enjoying plotting.

But the show must go on and that’s when I start mind-mapping my creation, consigning the woefully inadequate ramblings of my brain to A4 in some vague attempt to see where I’m headed.mindmap

I usually have to do this four or five times during the writing of the first draft.

Some of you will be absolutely horrified at this approach. Val McDermid, I read recently, usually plots to the nth degree, knowing exactly where she’s headed with each novel. Except for the last one, I think, or it might have been the one before the last one, where she had no idea where she was going at all. And she was scared stiff.

Who can blame her?

But that’s the way it always seems to work with me; the characters dictate what their story is and where the plot is going. It’s a bit like walking through a dark forest with a weak flashlight that only shows you the path ahead for about ten paces. Beyond that is inky blackness. Not a spark of light.

Anything could be up ahead. Anything at all . . .

I think it makes it more fun. Except of course when you haven’t the foggiest what’s going to happen in the next chapter. That’s just plain scary. Usually, though, with a little TLC (see my previous post on this . . . :)), my creativity is revived and I eventually figure out where things are headed.

I reckon I’m in good company. John Fowles used to begin work with just the ‘ghost of an idea’. And that approach produced ‘The Magus’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s woman’. Respect, Mr Fowles. Lots.

Not sure where you’re going with your plot? Embrace the mystery. Don’t freak out. The possibilities are endless; it’s up to you to feel your way forward. Use your instinct  – and particularly your imagination!

I’m including a (probably completely unfathomable) photo of one of my mind-map scrawlings so you can see what a tortured process I go through. I’ve got lots of these. Maybe I should include them as appendices in the next novel?

No, maybe not.

Happy plotting!