Diary of an Author – in bits (a short bit)

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?

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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.

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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?

More tomorrow!

 

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

Characters – more important than plot?

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. IMG_5417I 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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just what does ‘Protected’ mean?

The announcement in 2012 of the new UK Protected Persons Service, a National Crime Agency initiative designed to replace the old Witness Protection Program was greeted with a predictable raising of eyebrows and shaking of heads. The idea, as I understand it, was to introduce a more consistent approach to witness protection across the various UK constabularies.

Over the summer a few programs have been aired on the subject which got me thinking about what life would be like were one to be wrenched away from family, friends, home, school or work, and deposited anonymously into a completely new environment with no access to bank, social media – or anything really. Clearly it’s all about the safety of the witness(es) and the DCC in charge of the PPS has strong views on this subject:-

“We have to be very careful about who knows where they are and from the start, until we know they’re safe and secure, we would discourage them telling people where they are at any stage. But we can facilitate ways to maintain contact over periods of time,” says Deputy Chief Constable Andy Cooke, national policing lead for protected persons.

“We relocate both within the UK and internationally on occasions, depending on the level of threat on the individual circumstance of a case and whether it’s necessary. That doesn’t mean we’re going to relocate them to the Copacabana, but they do get a say.”

Quite how much of a say the witness actually gets is open to debate but having heard real life accounts of those living under the PPS it’s easy to conclude that the experience is hard on the nerves and less than ideal as a long-term life plan.

DCC Cooke says that no one has ever been seriously injured or killed on the programme, but people have been found – usually when they compromise themselves, for example by returning to their original location.

As an author in need of a short story the PPS seemed a fascinating place in which to locate DCI Brendan Moran for a brief period. You can read the story (which is entitled ‘Watershed’) as the first case in the DCI Brendan Moran Omnibus to be published this month as ‘The Irish Detective’.

The Irish Detective

Remembering the Western Front

I don’t know what it is that fascinates me about the First World War – particularly the Western Front and the carnage of the battle which has become known simply by the name of the nondescript river near which it was fought – The Somme.

I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because my grandfather was there – how close to the front I may never know; he was a quartermaster in one of the Highland regiments. I have a box of correspondence of his from those days somewhere. Maybe this year, one hundred years after it all started, is the time to pull it out of the attic to see if the contents will shed any light on his experiences.

Maybe it’s just that the literature I’ve read – Faulks’ Birdsong, Hill’s Strange Meeting to name just two – has left a deep impression upon my psyche of what these men, so unfortunate to have been born in the late Victorian era, went through in those dark years of 1914-1918.

Maybe it’s the thought of the huge loss of life? Casualties on a scale previously unimaginable as row after row of trudging Tommies went down under the withering fire of the German machine guns.

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Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that many of the survivors were utterly unable to live a normal life after demobilisation – and this not always due to physical infirmity, but rather the colossal mental trauma inflicted by sights, sounds and circumstances no human being should ever have had to endure.

According to my late father my grandfather ‘never spoke’ of his experiences on the Western Front. And how could these veterans have shared what they had experienced?

Neither you, nor I, nor anyone alive will ever know what it was like. We’d have to have fought alongside them, crouching terrified under bursting shells, dodging snipers’ bullets, burying friends and enemies side by side in the filth. That’s the only way we could ever empathise.

How can we hope to understand what it felt like to be huddled at the foot of the trench ladder waiting for the whistle to blow on that fateful July morning in 1916; to know that the German wire was not cut, as the bombardments had intended it to be, to know that you were required to walk – walk! – fully loaded with rifle, pack and other heavy accoutrements, into the path of countless traversing machine guns?

There’s something about that awful morning which haunts me and won’t let go.

Susan Hill (‘Strange Meeting’) tells us that it was only when she had finished her novel that she was able to ‘let go’ of her obsession with the Great War.

So maybe that’s what I need to do: write it out of my system.

In memory of those ordinary, long-dead soldiers.

Like Wraysford, Weir, Hilliard, Barton.

Not fiction.

History.

 

 

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.

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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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Days of positivity and days of …

You all know the feeling. You get out of bed and immediately feel great. One or two coffees later and you feel even better. The sun is shining, the muse is  kicking in like never before and your brain is in major creative mode.

Today is the day you feel as if you could write the next ‘To kill a Mockingbird’, or maybe even the next Robert Langdon. Er, maybe that’s going a wee bit too far, but you get my drift …

photo (2)Wouldn’t it be great if all days were like that? But you know as well as I do that they aren’t. Most days it feels like every sentence has to be dredged out of some steam-punkish type spaghetti-maker. Like every word you eventually judge a perfect fit (after at least an hour of manic sentence juggling) ends up turning the text into garbled, unintelligible rubbish.

So what do you do? Give up? Start looking for clerical jobs on the internet? Wish you hadn’t started the sequel to (insert WIP title here) which, four and a half thousand words ago, still seemed like a viable proposition?

No!

Listen to your peers!

John Banville:

‘Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence. In it, we can say anything. That saying, however, is difficult and peculiarly painful.’

George Moore:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’

Vladimir Nabokov:

‘I have written – often several times – every word I have ever published’

Sidney Smith:

‘A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage’

Hmmm. Authors are to be brave then, and resilient. Accept that the job is a hard graft, enjoy the days of inspiration, persist through the days of darkness.

So what’s your remedy for when the going gets tough? Drop me a line and let me know! I could use a bit of moral support … 🙂

Happy weekend!

Walk on, walk off …

So, you’re writing your novel and of course it’s right and proper that you should spend time making sure your characters come to life – especially the main characters of protagonist and, if appropriate, antagonist.

If the characters don’t come to life your readers will be unable to relate to and engage fully with the novel.

Hang on, you say. I’ve done that. I can even tell you what my characters ate for breakfast in 1976!

Well, that’s great, but have you paid any attention to that much neglected and little considered species, the walk-on, walk-off character?

Shakespeare was good at these. In the middle of some terrible, agonising situation someone would appear briefly to make some witty or pithy remark before disappearing into the wings, never to be seen again. Sometimes they have no name, but are simply referred to as ‘Servant’ or ‘Messenger’. They would provide comic relief or, more seriously, act as a catalyst to propel the story forward or perhaps nudge it in a new and completely unexpected direction.

I’m a great fan of this type of character, both in my own writing and in the novels and plays of others.

And they’re brilliant fun to invent. You feel a bit like a chef mulling over which spice will be the perfect complement to le repas du jour.

While we’re on the catering theme (!), one of my favourite characters in ‘The Trespass‘ is Pam Dellow, proprietress of  Devon-based sandwich company ‘Dellow’s Delicious Deli’. The protagonist, Simon Dracup, is forcibly taken to an US air base where he eventually boards a plane bound for Iraq.

I needed a way for Dracup to get vital information to his only potential ally, DCI Brendan Moran, before he got on that plane.

Pam Dellow appeared in my head straight away, with her little white van and middle-aged fantasies about handsome men sweeping her off her feet and spiriting her away from delivery drudgery to a new life.

She was perfect, a little light relief and an important conduit for the next stage of the plot.

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Cardinal Vagnoli plays a similar but subtly different role in ‘Black December’. He is a visitor to the abbey and, although he flits elusively in and out of the narrative, he seems to intuitively understand DCI Moran’s deepest thoughts. Instinct or something more sinister? Is he a suspect? Or merely a commenting observer of events?

So, add a little spice to your narrative and introduce a walk-on, walk-off character to your WIP.

You may be pleasantly surprised where your newcomer takes you . . .