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

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?

To Hunt A Sub

Jacqui Murray’s latest book, To Hunt A Sub, will be released on August 15th. It will be available on Kindle as folows:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K7VSPBW#navbar

 

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The title gives an indication of the subject matter, as does the summary provided by the author.

‘A brilliant Ph.D. candidate, a cynical ex-SEAL, and a quirky experimental robot team up against terrorists intent on stealing America’s most powerful nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine. By all measures, they are an unlikely trio–one believes in brawn, another brains, and the third is all geek. What no one realizes is this trio has a secret weapon: the wisdom of a formidable female who died two million years ago.’

Jacqui is an amazingly energetic person whose website, among other things, offers technical tips for those of less skilled than she is in handling hardware and software, book reviews, and also includes an extensive resource for other writers.

https://worddreams.wordpress.com/

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To give some flavour of the book, here is a preview chapter. I think we can safely call this a tricky situation. What happens next? There’s only one way to find out!

Three days before present

Ten hours and thirty-seven more minutes and the crew of the USS Hampton SSN 767 would be home. Seasoned submariners, the six-month covert intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance tour down the eastern seaboard of South America had gone flawlessly and silently. The Atlantic is a large ocean and the Los Angeles-class sub’s noise footprint small. Once the boat cleared Cuba, the crew would relax.

The Captain sipped the morning’s fourth cup of burned coffee when the hair on the back of his neck prickled. He glanced around, trying to identify what bothered him.

“Captain,” the Watchstander’s gaze bobbed from the Executive Officer to his watchstation. “Navigation is non-responsive.” Confusion tinged his words.

That was it. A change in the deck’s subtle rumble. Before the Captain could react to the impossibility that guidance controls had crashed, every monitor in the sub’s nerve center shut down.

He hadn’t seen this in twenty years of driving subs. All personnel made a hole as he rushed toward the Control Center, shadowed by the XO.

“Sonar readings?” The Captain called to Sonarman Second Class Andy Rikes in the compartment just aft of Control, barely larger than a broom closet but elbow-to-elbow with operators, fingers flying across keyboards and eyes locked onto screens that blinked a dull grey.

Rikes answered, “Negative, Sir. The hydrophones are working, but aren’t sending raw data, like someone pulled the plug and flushed everything out to sea. Trying to fix it.” His voice was hopeful.

If the screen had worked, Sonarman Rikes would have seen the ping, a final gasp before everything electrical collapsed.

The COB—Chief of Boat—interrupted, “Captain. Reactor Scram!” The sub’s nuclear power had evaporated. “Nuclear technicians isolating the problem. Battery back-up is being attempted.”

“Shift propulsion from main engines to EPM,” an auxiliary electric motor that could turn the propeller.

“Negative, Captain. Non-responsive.” Fear leaked from his voice.

The depth meter no longer worked, but the XO guessed that the sub was angled downward at 10 degrees

“Blow main ballast tanks!”

“No response, Captain.”

How deep is the ocean floor in this sector of the Atlantic?

The Sonarman answered,It varies between 1,000 and 16,000

16,000 feet was well below the sub’s crush depth.

“There are seamounts and ridges spread throughout. We could get lucky and land on one. Or not.”

“Inform US Strategic Command of our situation.”

“Sir, comms are down.”

Release the message buoy,” though all that told the world was they were in trouble. It could quickly drift miles from their position.

The Captain continued, voice calm, face showing none of the worry that filled his thoughts, “I want all department heads and Chief Petty Officers in front of me in five minutes. I want the status on every system they own and operate. Wake up whoever you need to.” He had a bad feeling about this.

“Gentlemen, solutions.” The Captain looked first at XO, then COB and finally NAV, the Navigation Officer who turned to the senior chief of navigation.

“It’s like an electromagnetic pulse hit us, which can’t happen underwater…” then he shrugged as though to say, I have no idea, Sir.

They practiced drills for every sort of emergency, but not this one. No one considered a complete electrical shutdown possible.

“We’re checking everything, but nothing is wrong. It just won’t work.”

“Where’s CHENG?” The Chief of Engineering.

“Troubleshooting, Sir.” COB’s voice was efficient, but tense.

The Captain didn’t wait. “Condition Alpha. Full quiet—voices whispers, all silent, no movement not critical. Defcon 2,” the second-highest peacetime alert level.

No one knew who their enemy was or why they were under attack, but they had one and they were.

“XO, get lanterns up here.”

Within an hour, the massive warship had settled to the ocean floor like the carcass of a dead whale. It teetered atop an ocean ridge, listing starboard against a jagged seamount, and the gentle push of an underwater current from a cliff that plunged into a murky darkness. Every watertight door was closed. As per protocol, the oxygen level was reduced to suppress a fire hazard. Without climate controls, the interior had already reached 60 degrees. It would continue dipping as it strove to match the bonechilling surrounding water temperature. Hypothermia would soon be a problem. For now, though, they were alive.

The hull groaned as though twisted by a giant squid.

The Captain peered into the gloomy waters that surrounded the sub. “Thoughts, XO?”

“We’re stable for the moment, barring a strong underwater current.”

Based on the creaking protests from the hull, they were at or beyond crush depth. Any deeper, the outside pressure would snap the HY-80 outer hull and sea water would roar into the living compartments. Everyone would be dead in seconds, either drowned or impaled on the ragged remains of the sub by a force in excess of a Category Five hurricane.

We’re beyond the depth of the Steinke Hoods,” escape equipment that included full body suits, thermal protection, and a life raft. Budget cuts had eliminated funding for more advanced solutions.

XO pointed toward a darker expanse of black just yards from the sub. “No telling how deep that crevice is.”

“Gather the crew in the Forward compartment. Seal all other compartments. Ration water. Start O2 candles when levels reach 50% normal. Did the message buoy launch?”

“Yes, sir.”

That was a relief. The Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) deployed in emergencies from shore couldn’t assist if it didn’t know they needed help.

Describing our characters

The author of the book I am reading right now has a tendency to supply a physical description when introducing a new character. His physical descriptions include what the character is wearing though, like advanced airport security, he will happily penetrate the clothes to the body beneath – especially if the character is female. Here are two examples.

‘How beautiful she was in her pink silk dressing gown, which allowed a glimpse of her shapely curves and the delicate outline of her breasts with their prominent nipples. Her long black hair was gathered in a ponytail, leaving her face free. Her eyes were large and dark, her feet were bare and her nails were painted bright red.’

‘Her dark blue linen suit and her white silk blouse accentuated a nice figure, and with her sensual lips, well-groomed shoulder-length red hair and tanned complexion, she looked like a film star.’

In case I am giving the wrong impression here, the author writes crime novels, not erotic fiction. But on the evidence so far, he is more interested in female bodies than male, though he does also make reference to what some of his male characters are wearing.

I question this approach on two levels. The first is whether, immediately on meeting a new character, we should expect a physical description. It is surely an unsubtle way of going about things. After a while, it comes across as the verbal equivalent of painting by numbers. Character – description. In a third person novel the author can tell us directly what a person looks like, and he has every right to do so.  But the fact that we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.  (I can hit my thumb with a hammer but it isn’t recommended.)

The second question is whether we need so much physical description anyway. Someone could be the body beautiful before us in all her glory and dressed to match, but if her ears are bookends for a vacuum why would we care? So I would hope that we vary the amount of physical description we supply according to how significant it is. I’m told that some people, in their choice of clothing, are making a statement – I am an important person, I am successful, I am powerful, I have a body to die for, I have a body to pay for. In such cases describe them by all means, but not all at once and perhaps, on occasion, through the eyes of another character in the book?

Advice for Writers

There is a great deal of information available to anyone intending to publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, and some of it is very good. This post concerns two aspects of advice sometimes given to writers of fiction.

The first is to write within a defined genre. If you write crime, fantasy or romance then your work will easily fall into a given genre and you won’t have to give this further thought. But beyond the clearly defined genres life may become more difficult. Assuming there is one, where is the dividing line between general fiction and literary fiction? Does it lie in the quality of the prose, or perhaps in the references which literary fiction might safely assume the reader will pick up but which the author aiming at a more commercial market could not safely include? What if an author combines two genres? And what if humour is involved?  I think we must try to avoid, as best we can, being totally confined within the bounds of a given genre unless it suits us. This may make marketing more difficult, but we should not let marketing considerations dictate how we go about writing unless our sole motivation is to make money.

The second piece of advice is to have more than one title to hand when approaching a publisher or agent. They like to know the well won’t run dry. What is the point in creating a profile for a writer who stops after one book? No one likes wasted effort. This is probably good advice, though tough for a one-book writer. You would not want to be Harper Lee today.

And when it comes to writing several books, the advice is to go for a series rather than a several stand-alone titles. The attractions of this are obvious. When readers move on to the later titles, they already know some of the characters. The experience might be compared to watching a soap rather than a sequence of one-off dramas. For writers the same applies. When moving on to the second and subsequent titles, they have already created several of their characters and don’t have to go through it again. You could say it appeals to laziness all round or, if that is too negative, that this approach, because it saves energy, is more efficient. It can and does work well, though some series have peaks and troughs (Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series is uneven) and others outstay their welcome (Henning Mankell’s Wallander series ends on a weak note).