Setting the Scene in Fiction

Is it important to be accurate when setting a scene? Opinions will vary. Writers of fantasy, sci-fi and the like cannot be expected to be accurate, though they should be consistent. If the planet Zog has five moons in chapter one, it should still have five in chapter 9 – unless, of course, four have been vapourised by the evil Kung Fu Manchu – last seen signing off at the end of the eighth reel with the dread words I shall return.

But if you’re writing in a more realistic genre, then a different approach would be more appropriate. A crime novel set in Seattle should accurately reflect that city, likewise a literary novel involving Vienna (and I am not referring here to Rigsby’s cat) should portray that city with an accuracy which reflects the time in which the events are set. The Vienna of Mozart was very different from that of Robert Musil.

I can’t deny being a bit inflexible when it comes to this aspect of the writer’s craft. I have published four novels. Three of them are set in my town of Edinburgh. But the third, The Ears of a Cat, is set in various places including Berlin, Los Angeles and Charmouth, a town in Dorset in the south of England. And while I’ve been to Charmouth, a favoured location for fossil hunters (and I myself am now more of a fossil than a hunter}, I have never set foot in Berlin or Los Angeles.

In the past, I might have gone to the library and taken copious notes from travel guides. But now, thanks to the web, I can visit these places with such immediacy that I can travel down streets, check out the buildings, and supplement what I see on Google Maps by referring to photographs taken at the various locations by helpful travellers who have actually been there.

But for my most recent paperback, Interleaved Lives, I have reverted to my usual practice of visiting locations and documenting them with photographs – for reference only and not for inclusion in the book. And I have done this even though I know most of them well.

This is the house where our hero, Douglas Hunter occupies the upper floor.

And here is the back garden of his house, where a workman investigating a blocked drain makes a troublesome discovery.

Next to Hunter’s house is the disused church where significant action takes place.

And here is a grille which gets an honourable mention.

While casing the joint, Hunter notices new pipework strangely at odds with the rest of the building, with its noticeable outbreaks of moss.

And here is the side door through which Hunter and co enter the church.

Some might say What does it matter: if the story is fiction why not the settings too? I’m not sure why, but to me a degree of accuracy matters.Which is why the pictures shown here are only a selection from a much larger group.

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

Decisions, decisions – First or Third

Authors are often advised to plan novels in a sequence, and if they manage that the books are then sub-titled after the main character, often a police officer: Inspector Bates #1, Inspector Bates #2, and so on. And this is good advice if you can take it.

My forthcoming paperback, Interleaved Lives, features Douglas Hunter, once a police officer, now a private detective.  The book is a first-person narrative, Douglas Hunter narrating. But when I began a sequel I found this a problem. If a character is telling the story one question always needs a clear answer – when describing events where he or she was not present, how does the narrator know what happened? The answer does not always need to be spelled out, as long as the author knows what it is and the reader can figure it out if he/she is so inclined.

Finding there were too many occasions when I couldn’t answer this question satisfactorily, I rewrote Interleaved Lives in the third person and began the sequel a second time. But I didn’t care for the result, abandoned the draft and reverted to the first-person version of the original. One reason for this was that I find writing in the first person more relaxing. Speaking rather than writing.

So rewriting the book in the third person was a waste of time and effort, but I consoled myself with the thought that Count Tolstoy began a novel on Peter 1 thirty-three times before giving up on the idea. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this information, gleaned from her excellent blog https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/).

More recently, Patricia Cornwell has written some books in her Kay Scarpetta series in the first person and others in the third. But she is licensed to fly a helicopter and is high profile enough to get away with it. And there is also the case of John Irving who, on the advice of his wife, translated his novel Until I find You, from the first to the third. Given the great length of this book, a mammoth task.

However, as far as continuity goes, I can claim to have a fall-back position. A main character in Interleaved Lives, DS Maureen MacNeil, appears in a previous book, Time to Talk, as does Douglas Hunter, though in a more minor role. So perhaps I can claim that the present title is itself a sequel. Sneaky, right?

Published by Eventispress, this title is now live:

mybook.to/InterleavedLives

Coincidence in Fiction

At the moment I’m reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne; I’m just over halfway through it. Early on I was struck by a coincidence. The narrator, Cyril Avery, ends up sharing a room at a boarding school with Julian, a boy whom he had last seen when he was seven years of age seven years before. How likely is that?

I read on and encountered another coincidence more striking than the first. Having relocated as an adult to Amsterdam, Cyril has taken to visiting a pub run by a certain Jack Smoot. Jack’s life had been saved by Cyril’s biological mother when he and his lover, Sean, were attacked in Dublin by Sean’s father in a drunken, homophobic rage. Despite being heavily pregnant with Cyril at the time, his mother had tried valiantly to save them. Sean died of his injuries but Smoot, though badly injured, survived.

As coincidences go, this one is major. It also incorporates dramatic irony, since the reader is aware of how major this coincidence is, but Cyril is not. Cyril has yet to meet his mother and has no idea who she is.

I am uneasy about this, but the author could always reply, Coincidences occur in life, as they do, or Look here, Rod, it may be highly unlikely but it’s possible. Which, of course, it is. Does it work? I feel manipulated by it, but others may not. To misquote Wallace Stevens, I am of two minds, like a tree in which there are two blackbirds.

Does anyone out there have a view on this?

Fear of Failure

The word ‘mind-games’ is often taken to mean attempts by one person to influence another. It is well known in sporting circles where Coach A will falsely claim that his opponents in the forthcoming match are the favourites when everyone knows fine well that they are not. By this transparent stratagem, he aims to pile the pressure of expectation on Coach B and his team. But the games am I stealing up on here are those played by the mind against itself. I will start with a small, insignificant example and end with devastation.

My wife and I are partial to coffee and keep the necessary ingredients in a cupboard which contains the usual coffee, percolators and mugs. But notice also the clock on the wall.

So, to access these essentials of our addiction, I open the cupboard door.

No surprise there. But guess what? When I open this door, I obscure the clock on the wall.

At which point, having just obscured it, I am overcome with a desire to look at it and find out what the time is – and this from a man who never wears a watch. Which strikes me as strange. As an example of the mind at work against itself it is clearly a small one. After all, it’s easily solved. All I need to do is move the clock or train myself to check it before opening the cupboard door.

But I have seen the mind in conflict with itself at a much more serious level. The person in question has crippled herself for decades and, unfortunately, over a period of years, a crippling of the mind has led to a crippling of the body. Although there was nothing wrong with her legs to begin with, now she can no longer walk, partly because of muscle wastage but mainly because her knees are locked. And she has done this to herself.

I am not a shrink, but as far as I can tell the underlying process goes as follows.

  • I do not want to fail.
  • If I never attempt anything then I will never fail.

And this is obviously true. You could say she has failed at nothing because she has taken the precaution of attempting nothing. Unfortunately, the corollary of this principle is also true – if we never attempt anything then we never succeed either.

So where has this led? Since she never leaves her bedroom, let alone her house, she has succeeded in making herself entirely dependent on others. And this despite an impressive array of self-help books. What will her future hold? I have no idea, but know that I won’t be here to see it.

I could document this sad state of affairs with photographs but for obvious reasons have chosen not to do so.

The Thursday Murder Club

This is the title of a book by Richard Osman. For those of you who might not know, Osman is a TV Personality, appearing in UK game shows such as Pointless.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book.

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves the Thursday Murder Club.

When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

As the bodies begin to pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late?

This post is a review, but only up to a point since I have another angle here. The book has already sold in large numbers, so my comments will not affect its success in any way. Be that as it may, having read about a third of it I put it aside for several weeks. I found the crime elements over-complicated and uninvolving – I didn’t really care who had murdered whom or whether our four golden oldies would figure it out in the end. But where it scored was in its portrayal of the retired individuals who were trying to make sense of it all. We are given them in the third person, save only for Joyce, a retired nurse who keeps a diary from the pages of which she addresses us directly as if engaging us in conversation. For me, the real centre of interest lies in the characters rather than the plot, which is surely preferably to an ingenious plot carried forward by cardboard characters.

Osman is to be congratulated on noticing, before reaching an age where he can experience it for himself, that older people still have emotions. Some authors have achieved this in the past, Ring Lardner for example. Remember him, I hope so? But Osman does it very well. Another area where he excels is reading the signs of the times. Not all old people could afford to live in Coopers Chase, a retirement complex specifically intended for the relatively well-to-do. But in conveying the details of this complex and its residents, the narrative can become a bit too whimsical for my taste, though an excellent source for social scientists.

The development is situated in the grounds of an old convent, which leads to one of the murders.

The old convent dominates Coopers Chase, with three modern residential developments spiralling out from this central point. For over a hundred years the convent was a hushed building, filled with the dry bustle of habits and the quiet certainty of prayers offered and answered. Tapping along its dark corridors you would have found some women comfortable in their serenity, some women frightened of a speeding world, some women hiding, some women proving a vague, long-forgotten point and some women taking joy in serving a higher purpose.

And because of this, the ground contains a graveyard where departed sisters have been laid to rest.

And then one day you would take the short trip up the hill, through the tunnel of trees, to the Garden of Eternal Rest – the iron gates and low stone walls of the Garden looking over the convent and the endless beauty of the Kentish High Weald beyond, your body in another single bed, under a simple stone, alongside the Sister Margarets and Sister Marys of the generations before you. If you had once had dreams they could now play over the green hills, and if you had secrets then they were kept safe inside.

As might be expected, the developer wants to ‘develop’ the entire site, graveyard included. This raises certain questions, from the simple – do we really want to dig up dead nuns for housing? – to heavy theological questions relating to the resurrection of the flesh which, not wishing to fry what’s left of my brain, I will neatly side-step. But be it noted, the developer who intends this desecration is duly bumped off before he can bring it about.

The reason I find this storyline so interesting is that my wife and I, in real life, live in the grounds of an old convent. The order in question has gone under various related names but I will refer to them as the Poor Clares. I still remember the days when they sold eggs at the convent gate.

Since the sisters who lived here suffered the same fate as those in the book, our site also contains a graveyard.

But as in the book, the developer wanted to build on this ground too, and was supported by the arch-diocese, which proposed to go along with this plan, presumably to further swell their coffers. This caused outrage at the time. Fortunately, the City Council took legal action to protect the departed sisters both from the developer and their dubious co-religionists.

Little note. In reading up about the Poor Clares I constanly found their places of residence referred to as monasteries, which I had thought were inhabited by monks rather than nuns. But since everyone round here has used the word ‘convent’ for decades I am sticking with what I am accustomed to. And, as Mrs Slocombe used to say, I am unanimous in that.

Everyone Loves a Bear

There will be exceptions, no doubt, but ever since Theodore Roosevelt lent his name to the Teddy Bear they have been popular. Disney helped too, many decades ago, with footage of bear cubs falling out of trees for the amusement of the cinema-going public.

The bear below was owned by a notable soldier, Kermit, son of Theodore, and now lives on a restricted diet at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He looks a bit morose to me, as Kermit himself sometimes did. (He committed suicide in Alaska.)

And bears have been popular ever since, most notably with excellent peedie folk like this.

However, the bear I have in mind here, the real subject, was Wojtek, who led a remarkable life. During World War II, he accompanied Polish soldiers to several theatres of war and ferried munitions during the Battle of Monte Casino without, we are told, ever dropping any.

When the Polish soldiers who had adopted him sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign they had to cut through the inevitable red tape to get him aboard a transport ship. To solve this problem he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. He was later promoted to corporal.

When the war ended, Wojtek the bear was stationed with his unit in the village of Hutton, near Duns, As you would expect, he was very popular, and in November 1947 he was entrusted to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his days and was often visited by former Polish soldiers. As a serving soldier he had ‘enjoyed’ the occasional cigarette. But now they had to be thrown to him over the fence. It seems they were still gratefully received, but because there was no one in his enclosure to light them for him he ate them instead. Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22.

On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in Princes Street Gardens. The statue represents Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity.

A four metre long relief represents his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army.

And here he is with one of his army friends.

So thanks to Wojtek the Bear we now have an image of a Polish soldier in the centre of the City of Edinburgh. This is just as well because, sad to say, when a victory parade took place in London after the war Polish forces were shamefully excluded following pressure from these nice people in the Soviet Union.

Remembering the Dead

In one of our local graveyards some of the stones are so old that the original inscriptions can no longer be read, though some dating back to 1760 can still be partially made out.

Unless stonemasons have found a way round this problem, I assume this fate will eventually befall all headstones, however clear they may be when first made.

Modern technology allows photographs of the departed to be included on the stone and I see this occasionally. I find it unsettling, though I have yet to figure out why. But in this case the inscription ‘forever young’ seems very well chosen. The lady died young and will not grow older. Just as important, she will never grow old in the memory of those who knew her. What a loss this must have been.

When it comes to wording, it is less common to read that the departed died, except in times gone by when ‘died’ was commonly used: after all, since we’re in a graveyard this is obviously what has happened. In the past, the death of children was much more common than now and there was no avoiding it, and many who made it into adult life died younger than they would today. ‘Passed away’ is often used in speech these days, but seldom on our local headstones. Lately I have come across several examples of ‘fell asleep’ which, for me, is taking euphemism too far. They did not fall asleep, they died.

I was much struck in Afghanistan to see that though many died young a few hardy specimens made it through to a ripe old age, though I wouldn’t give much for their chances now. I remember one old gentleman with a donkey I passed on a narrow footpath above a ravine. We couldn’t converse, but he produced a bag of dried mulberries from his sleeve and kindly offered me some. When I think of my time there I can’t believe I didn’t take a camera.

I would claim that my interest in these things is not especially morbid: my route home from the baker takes me through a cemetery. On my most recent visit I came across something I have never seen before, so I am not referring to the collection of empty beer cans and bottles I reported in an earlier post.

Family members had left, among other objects, a little Christmas tree by the graveside. They were still including this lady in.

Sometimes lines of verse are included on the stone. Here is one example.

Here in your garden

Free from all pain

We would not wake you

To suffer again

It seems that this lady suffered before she died and these lines offer a degree of solace to those left behind. I think they are excellent.

Another way of remembering the dead, at least in our part of the world, is a bench where the weary traveller can rest his bones. This one is by a bus stop where I catch the bus to Bonnyrigg.

I never knew this lady but find one of her middle names intriguing. Holdforth. I can only suppose that one or more of her forebears was given to holding forth – a lay preacher perhaps, or a politician – and so acquired the name. Except for this bench, I have never come across this surname anywhere else.

Is death an appropriate subject not only for reflection but for humour? I would contend that if humour is appropriate for life – a much more serious business about which we can do something – then it should also be appropriate for death, about which we can do nothing.

It would be possible to offer a funeral verse service through Fiverr or some such, each verse or stanza to be tailored to the relative’s circumstances, much as some offer for birthdays. An opportunity for a deft spot of black humour. There is, of course, the well known joke about the dentist filling his last cavity. Or how about this?

My husband never gave me a dime,

Now he’s gone and not before time!

But even if lines likes these were perfectly attuned to the facts, I have since learned that ‘the authorities’ exercise control over what may be inscribed upon headstones stone by the monumental mason.

Ah well, you can’t win them all. Or, in the case of death, you can’t win any.

Songs in Film and TV Drama

Your attitude will depend on how you think fiction works. For example, you might like to feel, as you watch a cast of characters in action, that the events on the screen are actually taking place. You’re well aware that this isn’t the case but suspend your disbelief till the drama is over.

Now imagine two lovers reluctantly bidding each other farewell in an airport never to meet again. You might expect public service announcements in the background: Would passengers for flight ABC1234 for Dahomey please report to gate D8. What you would not expect is their dialogue to be intercut with a song. Where is the singer? In that fast food outlet over there? Lurking out of sight at the Delta Airlines desk?

As the parting plays out you realise that the singer isn’t there at all. So how come you’re hearing her? If this touching scene is really happening, as you would like to believe, then she would not be there at all.

Of course there will occasions when a given scene will justify music, or even demand it. A private eye in a car plays the radio, two characters sip lattes in a café where music (Wallpaper Volume 3) is playing in the background, three old friends sweat it out at a comeback gig of the Grateful Dead.

But increasingly, the custom is to zap the viewer with music in the absence of any such justification. Since we already know this cannot add credibility, we have to ask if it contributes something else, for example, adding meaning or significance to the action.

So . . .

Have we noticed how often people begin statements with the word ‘so’? In the past (a time zone I cheerfully inhabit) ‘so’ used to signify a consequence. I punched him on the nose SO he punched me back. These days, though, the word is deployed in much the same way that the Angles and Saxons used the word Hwaet! But I realise I’m going back a bit here.

So there is a television show called Hanna, three seasons in all.

Are songs used in the delivery of these episodes? They certainly are. According to the website Tunefind, if you watched all 22 episodes you’d be hit by a grand total of 150 songs. One hundred and fifty! And I have to reveal that this viewer has been hit by all of them and he didn’t like it one bit. So much so that he had the mute button handy whenever a song started and was therefore obliged to follow the dialogue through subtitles.

When it comes to Hanna and many other series, I find that songs compete with dialogue for our attention.  I have no idea why programmes are made in this way. In the old days, when CD albums were the thing, films were often made with enough songs to make up an album as a part of an associated merchandising campaign. I’m not sure if it works in quite this way now, when individual songs can be streamed or downloaded. Maybe it does.

Another niggle. I have often noticed that the makers of TV series/film have an unwelcome desire to play an individual song in its entirety. This, of course, stops the action dead in its tracks. So they attempt to cover the problem by a sequence of visuals; the femme fatale in her shower thinking her thoughts, the assassin preparing his or her weapon, complete with silencer.

Sometimes, despite all of the above, a film is made which does very well with songs. An example of this would be O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yes, for reasons which will obvious to anyone who has read this far, I too am a man of constant sorrow.

Who’d Have Thunk It?

There I was, strolling down the road to visit my daughter, when I spotted something yellow in the distance which hadn’t been there before. What was it, I hear you ask?Anticipating this question, I altered course just a little and went to examine it.

It was a box, standing on its own sturdy legs, which looked as though it contained books. Could this really be? I opened it to find out and, sure enough, there were the books.

So what was going on here, what was the idea? The answer was to be found on the side.

Authors might not like this idea so much. If books are provided free without even having to go to a conventional library, they’re not going to make much money. Although, when you think about it, most of us don’t anyway.

So let’s hope the locals make good use of the Little Library. We shall see.