Knowledge and Experience – or Imagination?

Well known, and in many ways brilliant, writer Anthony Horowitz has been warned off including black characters in a new book because an (American?) editor said it was inappropriate for a ‘white’ writer to create a ‘black’ character. He made the rejoinder that if you followed that train of thought he could only write about ‘62 year old, white, Jewish men living in North London’
What was that editor thinking?
A writer’s job is:
To tell a story by creating characters and leading the reader through the development of the plot by showing interactions between those characters.
I suggest that stories, characters and interactions would be incredibly feeble and tedious if all characters were a reflection of the writer.
That editor does not appear to allow for the one critical factor – imagination. Why is it artificial or condescending or patronising to include characters of different ages, genders, races and even sexual proclivities just because the writer has not had that personal experience? And in any case, are people so defined by their colour, as this editor implies, that empathy and understanding are impossible between different ‘categories’ (my quotes) of people?
For the past few months I have been writing my next murder mystery novel – Hostage to Fortune (hopefully out early 2018).
The story involves murder and abduction but I am neither a murderer nor an abductor so I presume to be able to put myself in the place of one who is.
Instead of knowledge and direct experience I have imagined; I have put myself in the position of someone in a certain situation and imagined what they would do and how they would act. This is what writers (good, bad and indifferent) do.
How many people did Agatha Christie poison, stab, shoot or otherwise do away with? How could she, as a well off, middle-aged, English woman possibly write about a pedantic Belgian male detective, an ex-policeman, refugee from war-torn Belgium, possible spy for the British, lover of steam trains, unlucky in love. Could it have been that she had imagination?
I could not have written any of my books including only white, thoroughly middle class, university educated, four times married, women in their sixties.
My characters are first and foremost individuals.
Ryan, Guy, Arjun, Luis, Barford, Pat, Diane, Skye and Fergal each acts and reacts in his or her own individual way, they have characteristics of their own, they have taken on lives of their own with individual motives and back-stories.
Ryan is immature, Guy is manipulative, Arjun is vulnerable, both Luis and Barford make mistakes though both survive them, both Pat and Diane keep too many secrets to themselves, and neither Skye nor Fergal can keep to their remit; but, when it comes down to it, their gender, sexuality, colour and age are probably immaterial to the plot but their differences make it, to my mind, far more credible.
In these days of inclusivity and diversity a book that contains characters who are uniform in gender, sexuality, colour and age would be completely improbable so, should that editor’s approach be accepted widely, every work of fiction would have to have multiple writers, each concentrating on their own insular and insulated little world, limited by their experience.
As a certain, brilliant, scientist (Albert Einstein) is quoted as saying “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Progress?

The first draft of the book I would like to call Hostage to Fortune is finished! (Time for a celebratory glass of wine?)
Begun on 15 March this, the follow on to Her Parents’ Daughter and Second Strand, is the quickest I have ever completed the first draft of a book.
Of the thirty-four days, only eight were without progress. I achieved an average 1,793 words per day which isn’t bad, with a maximum number in a day 6,427! One or two days were pretty much failures with only one hundred odd words, but there were always extenuating circumstances.
This incredible rate of progress was only possible because I spent three weeks plotting out the chapters in advance, (memories of teachers telling me to plan out essays before putting pen to paper – thank you Miss Nicholson, Mr Sant and Miss Honeyball!) so I knew where I was going and who was going to do what to whom and when before I started.
It was only in the last but one chapter that my characters strayed off message. One, Guy, was supposed to do one thing but as the words spewed from my fingers on the keyboard he decided to do something completely different.
I can only say that this turned out to be his mistake.
Unfortunately, the title Hostage to Fortune has been used before. Sometimes A Hostage to Fortune, sometimes Hostages to Fortune, sometimes with a subtitle sometimes not.
Shall I go with it anyway, since the other books date from 1931, and the fifties?
I don’t know.
I can’t think of any better for this book; it works on so many levels.
Mind you, since I’ve only just finished the first draft, I have lots of time to think about it.

Places and Ideas

I’ve been away a lot this winter. Unable to face the combination of long dark evenings and long dark mornings I’ve only been ‘at home’ four weeks in the past three months (a luxury allowed by not having a cat (not good) and the day job seriously winding down (good)).
We escaped much of the cold, damp and dark but I can never escape the books that are in my head.
I am still re-vamping The Iniquities Trilogy so, as we drove through Spain, I could not avoid thinking ‘this is where Wellington’s armies marched and fought and Carl followed in his summer of 1967 in The Last Dance’ and ‘this is where Pat lives and Fergal and Skye came to visit in 2016 in Second Strand’.
Most of my books are firmly placed in areas I know; The Wirral (The Iniquities Trilogy, Highly Unsuitable Girl), various parts of Kent (Highly Unsuitable Girl, Walking Alone, Runaways), the Isle of Wight (A Set of Lies, Her Parents’ Daughter, Second Strand), Dartmouth (Second Strand and now Empty Boxes), Barbados (Highly Unsuitable Girl) and various parts of Spain (The Last Dance, A Set of Lies, Second Strand) – I’m sure I’ve missed a few. I need to be able to see my characters and I find it easier if they are in real places I know.
My next book (currently under the working title Empty Boxes) is in the planning stage so as we travelled I have been on the lookout for locations, almost as if already making the film, so as we sat in the (hot) sun gazing out over a smart marina I was thinking ‘is this big enough for Ryan to berth Peabody III late in 2017?’ and, as we sat in a beach bar watching the sun going down I was wondering whether the cove in the distance could be where Arjun will abandon Diane.
Places give me ideas (inspiration?) and through the past four weeks in Spain ideas have crystallised. I now know (more or less) who does what to whom, when and where. I know (something of) the characters of my characters. I know which historical events will form the crux of the story. I know how the thread of the story begins and ends.
All I have to do now is write the book.

Libraries

In our recent and ongoing period of financial unpleasantness so many libraries are closing down or, should I say, are ‘being closed down’ by councils as they seek to cut costs.
According to The Guardian (which isn’t always to be taken as gospel but which should be believed when it quotes people who know) 340 libraries have closed in the UK in the past eight years and a further 340 could go in the next five. Among the many libraries being considered for closure is the first publicly funded library in the UK – Warrington Central Library opened in 1848 – the bellwether of English libraries.
The Public Libraries Act 1850 gave local boroughs in England and Wales (extended to Scotland in 1853) the power to establish libraries for reference and for free lending to not only ‘steer people towards temperate and moderate habits’ (keep them out of the pub?) but to encourage the ‘lower classes’ to spend their time on morally uplifting activities and engage in autodidactism (keep them out of the pub and allow men (and possibly even women) to learn stuff when the provision of a general education was severely limited).
It’s not just me saying ‘keep them out of the pub’. A campaigner for the working classes is quoted in the 1834 report of the Select Committee on Inquiry into Drunkenness that ‘the establishment of parish libraries and district reading rooms, and popular lectures on subjects both entertaining and instructive to the community might draw off a number of those who now frequent public houses for the sole enjoyment they (can) afford’.
In 2005/06 347,000,000 visits were made to UK public libraries (this doesn’t include academic libraries) with 48% of English residents visiting one at least once in the year. Since then use has decreased (2013 the figures were 288,000,000 and 36%) but that’s still a heck of a lot of people.
And they use libraries for so many things! Community gatherings, getting your bus pass, work spaces for school children, nursery classes, adult education classes and free access to the internet (still 14% of households in the UK – that’s 14% of 27,000,000 – 3,780,000 households have NO internet access). Libraries are critical!
It’s not just about referencing or borrowing books – though that is still their most important function.
Every year I get a statement (and a payment) from Public Lending Right UK. They track every time one of my titles is borrowed and for each reader I receive 4.2 pence. So please, if you haven’t read any of my books and you’d rather not buy them, go to your local library (if it’s still there) and ask for The Last Dance, or Walking Alone, or Runaways, or Highly Unsuitable Girl, or A Set of Lies, or Her Parents’ Daughter or Second Strand. They will be delighted to help you.
We must keep our libraries, as well as our independent bookshops.
Use them or lose them!

Brick walls & Retirement

retiredOne way or another I have been writing fiction for at least thirty years.
I have files of hand written jottings outlining short stories that remain unwritten but which were the seeds of episodes in longer novels.
I have sheets and sheets of notes, with the sprocket hole edges still intact, with passages of writing which, as I re-read them after so many years, are actually quite good.
I have notes printed out from floppy disks as it became evident that floppy disk drives were no longer de rigueur.
I have CDs containing the back ups (backs up?) of early drafts of all my final published novels.
I have a shelf of external disk drives going back over years of drafts, re-writes, re-re-writes and final off-to-the-publisher writes.
What I haven’t, any longer, is the will to carry on.
My electronic pencil has reached its stub end.
I started writing seriously in 2002 when the plot for The Iniquities Trilogy began to form and now, more than fourteen years later, I am re-writing that as one book Iniquities Revisited. Once that is done … no brick-wallmore.
There is only so much beating one’s head against brick walls one can take.
Brick walls?
Well, trying to get people to notice one book amongst tens of thousands; trying to get reviewers to review, booksellers to stock, readers to buy; putting up with the fact that best-seller lists are full of ghost written celebrity ‘autobiographies’, television tie-ins and cookery books that no one will ever use; watching television mini-series where the plots are thin and the plot holes are so large as to be only describable as sink holes.
‘Dispiriting’ doesn’t come close.
So that’s it. After The Last Dance, Walking Alone, Runaways, Highly Unsuitable Girl, Her Parents’ Daughter, A Set of Lies, Second Strand and Iniquities Reworked no more.
No more exploring the lives of my imaginary friends.
No more wondering how I can bring Susanna back into my world.
No more doubting whether Skye and Fergal’s marriage will survive their investigatory adventures.
No more worrying about how I can finally kill off Carl Witherby (who has been with me since the very beginning).
No more thinking what to put in a blog on the website.
No more being bothered to tweet and post on Facebook.
No more of any of that.
That’s it.
When people now ask me what I do I will no longer say ‘I write’ I will say I am retired.
With the emphasis on ‘tired’.

Washing-Up Bowls

Washing Up BowlsResearch seems to be done into everything and anything and then the resultant press release forms the basis of news bulletin after news bulletin. What I want to know is why research has not been done (at least doesn’t appear to have been done because if it had it would have led the BBC News for at least 24 hours) into that most common of household items – washing-up bowls.
Why are they used in the first place when they are placed within perfectly adequate basins?
“I’ve lost the plug to the basin” “It’s useful to have a space down which to pour cold tea without dirtying the washing up water” “It’s quieter to use than a metal sink” “It’s less likely you’ll chip a plate or glass against plastic” “It uses less water” “The water can be chucked over plants after, rather than being wasted down the drain”.
But they are not all good news.
“They’re not healthy – they’re breeding grounds for bacteria” “They are, like greetings cards, an unnecessary accessory creating a whole unnecessary industry” “Why would you want to put a piece of cheap plastic in an expensively designed kitchen?”
Perhaps we only use them because we were brought up doing the washing-up in a plastic bowl.
So we use them. By the millions.
And so someone, somewhere should do some research.
Are they (like cars) becoming available in fewer and fewer colours?
Are they, as they seem to be, getting smaller and smaller – so small that even reasonably sized dinner plates don’t lie down in them?
If they are getting smaller is this a response to the need to save water. Is it in response to the need to reduce the amount of plastic used? Perhaps it’s in response to smaller houses, smaller kitchens, smaller sinks, less washing up being done (more take-aways?)
I call upon someone to research this most important of household items. An anniversary must be coming up. “One million years since the first human being carried water from a watering hole in an animal skin and, rather than pouring the water over the eating implements and pieces of wood used as proto-plates, put those re-usable items in the carrying vessel.”
Which brings me on to washing up liquid….

You can see from this post that I’ve made no progress with A Second Strand in the past weeks. I’ve been busy with the day job – but next week it’s the final read through before sending it off to edit! I’ll be in touch Matador….

A Job in Retail

Dartmouth Community BookshopToday I have done something I have never done before.
In my time I have had various jobs and a long career in self-employment.
I have folded sheets in a laundry (three summers), been a ‘lady wot does’ (a few weeks), packed boxes of biscuits in a chocolate factory (two summers), worked as an accounts clerk in a paper mill (one summer), taught in both the public and the private sector (three and two years respectively), operated a Wang machine for a firm of Chartered Surveyors (eighteen months), worked in customer support for a word-processing manufacturer (two years), run the word-processing department of an insurance broker in the City of London (eighteen months), run a word-processing bureau (three years) and, for the past thirty-three years, run my own office based business but today, for the first time in my umpteen years, I have been involved in selling something directly to members of the public.
I really can’t count the one hour I was paid to stand behind the bar in a pub on Christmas Eve because it snowed and, since there was not one customer, we ‘bar-staff’ were all sent home early. Nor can I count the few occasions on which I helped out in a picture gallery as I can’t honestly remember ever selling anything.
Today, after writing books for more than ten years (can that be called a job?) and spending quite a few hours in various bookshops around the country doing signings, selling books it is true, but never actually taking the money, I have spent two hours working in a bookshop.
Today, for the first time, I talked to customers (and browsers), scanned bar codes, inserted cards into the hand held card reading device thingy and operated a till.
Thank you, Dartmouth Community Bookshop, for giving me the opportunity to learn something new, thank you Andrea and Hilary for showing me something of the ropes and, most of all, thank you customers for being patient and understanding!
I really am looking forward to the next time.