Oct 31, 2012

A Spy is Born


OK, have a look on the right under 'Good stuff' and there you will find the authentic account of how Timothy Arnold drifted into the seedy world of industrial espionage (Short story nr. 1 - A Spy is Born). Let the downfall of Timothy be a lesson to us all.

Enjoy the story and let me know what you think!

Oct 29, 2012

This is what happens...

Poznan, Poland
... when I think up a character! Timothy Arnold, the subject of the last post, will not leave me alone until I write his very own short story. Come back here on Wednesday and you will find out how Timothy got into the business of spying. Or what his case officer in the Department for  British Export Development (DeBED for short) prefers to call "non-domestic logistical research".

Oct 25, 2012

Creating a monster

Venice Biennale 2009, KR
I’m now getting to the point in my preparations where I am starting to create the characters for my story. This is always an interesting phase because if you don’t have strong well-drawn characters in your head, then it will be difficult for them to interact with each other on paper.

In the past, I have sometimes created my characters on the fly and their personality often changed dramatically as the story progressed. In my novella “Ekaterina” Sir Gilbert Villiers (a character loosely based on Sir Richard Branson) started life as a villain. I even gave him the name of somebody I didn’t like at school. Then for some reason he stopped being bad and became more of a victim. I have no idea how that happened, it just did.

This time I want to develop the character’s identity in more detail in advance so that this kind of transformation doesn't happen too much. I like to feel that a novel’s characters have a rich private life. The details may not be in the book itself, but I want to feel that the author has it in mind. I think that works very well in “The Lord of the Rings” for example. You can easily imagine the characters doing other things apart from killing dragons or chasing orcs. Gandalf would be extremely good at Sudoku, Arwen must be a Pilates freak while Legolas undoubtedly knits scarves for the other elves. On the other hand, when he isn’t saving the world, I find it very difficult to imagine James Bond doing anything more than stare at himself in the mirror while raising one eyebrow sardonically.

So to help me develop this depth, I have devised a character profile for my characters. I hope to be able to complete this profile for each central character before I start writing. I tried it out for the first time today. The character I wanted to develop should have been the elder brother of the main hero / heroine. But after I had finished I realized that I had developed somebody completely different: the description was just right for Timothy Arnold – somebody working as a part-time undercover agent for the British government and will be very nasty piece of work.  It’s a little bit spooky how this happens. Anyway, here is Timothy’s profile:

Age                          ->    55       
Reminds me of          ->   A Conservative MP             
Role in story             ->   Message bearer for British government.
Relationship status     ->  Married to Celia, daughter of the senior partner in his law firm. Celia has a drink problem. They have two children.
Drives                      ->    Range Rover.
Animal similarity        ->    Looks like overweight grey squirrel.
Personal secret        ->     Has a store of pornography in the garage.
Job                          ->    Solicitor
Strength                  ->     Shrewd
Weakness                ->     Snobbish
Friends description    ->     Clever
Enemies description   ->     Devious, pompous
Best feature              ->     Loves his children
Worst feature           ->      Dishonest
Best experience       ->       Becoming chairman of local golf club
Worst experience     ->       Nearly went bankrupt
Best action               ->       Hid Celia’s drink problem from the children
Worst action             ->       Stole money from a friend to cover a debt
Secret fear               ->       The theft will be uncovered
Loves                       ->       Golf
Hates                       ->       Unpredictibility
He/she admires        ->       Mrs Thatcher
He/she despises       ->       School teachers
Key values                ->      Money, home ownership, status quo

Let’s see how the rest of them develop.

Oct 21, 2012

Orphaned furniture

I think it’s time for a short digression from my novel. Although it’s not really a digression, because I think the story I’m going to tell you in this post ties in with one of the questions that will come up in the novel - what happens to things that get left behind?

On Friday it was my birthday and for various reasons, I received an old wooden sideboard as a present from Frau T***, somebody I had never met, who died recently aged 102. In 1910 when she was born, Germany still had an Emperor and when I went to collect the sideboard, I found her flat was littered with objects from throughout those years, left behind like flotsam and jetsam.

It’s an enormous flat and it felt melancholy with nobody living there to take care of it. At the moment it’s chaotic as it has to be made ready for new tenants. There are removal boxes everywhere and large rubbish bins waiting to be filled with the paper contents from rows of ancient files. The old wardrobes only have empty clothes hangers inside which fall down when you open the doors. The pictures have been removed and stacked in the corner, leaving dark squares behind them on the wall where the sun wasn’t able to bleach the wallpaper over the years. And I kept asking myself questions about the things that I saw: why was there a bed made up in the kitchen? What was special about this postcard on the floor from 1970? Who were these people in the photos? Did she ever use the little 50s slide projector which looked like a tiny television and what did she look at? But of course, I’ll never know the answers.

Each room had various bits of furniture standing around, looking uncomfortable and forlorn like guests at a party which isn’t going very well. The battered old rubbishy bits that nobody would want looked resigned to being taken to the rubbish dump while the more respectable pieces that might find a home just seemed depressed. I felt guilty about rejecting a huge orange painted wardrobe that I had previously discussed taking. But I could see it was just too large to get down the stairs in one piece. I had to leave it to its fate.

Finally I found the wooden sideboard itself. It’s a beautiful thing, with a two-door cupboard, two drawers and a glass case that goes on top. It’s probably at least 80 years old, and I’m sure Frau T*** loved it dearly. It could have been part of a wedding present because there was a table and a wardrobe to match. It was dusty, but you could see it had been well polished over many years and in the glass case she probably kept her best china tea service. It stood in the dining room and one of the drawers had a green baize lining for her silver knives and forks while the other drawer had odd things that you might expect in a dining room, like a wine bottle stopper and a single paper napkin with Christmas decorations.

I read once of a scientist who believed that the ancient vases made by the Greeks might have picked up the voices and sounds made by the potters as they were being spun on the wheel, just like a vinyl record. He wanted to design a machine to see if he could recover these sounds. I never heard if he succeeded but I guess not because that would have been a sensational news story. I also think that if he had succeeded, the conversations would probably have been along the lines of “Archios, haven’t you finished that pot yet? We’re supposed to have them ready for Friday!” “Look just get off my back, man! I’m spinning as fast as I can!”

But wouldn’t it be amazing if somehow you could find out what this sideboard had seen and heard through all those meals, all those years, all those family parties, all those Christmases? I would love to be able to watch and hear those ordinary people from those extraordinary years. What did they say about the big things going on around them, like the World Wars, the Wall Street crash and so on? Probably nothing more exciting than “Edeltraud, have you finished polishing the silver yet? I want some dinner!” “Look just help yourself to a herring, there’s one in the kitchen!”, but I would settle for that.

Sideboard with accessorizing pug

Anyway, I fell in love with this poor orphaned sideboard immediately. As gently as possible I carried it away with my helpers to its new home, saying a sad goodbye to all the other orphaned pieces we left behind. And this is what happens when somebody dies. There is a small reshuffle of the universe and all the things that surrounded the individual that has gone, fall into the void that is suddenly created and land somewhere completely different.

So, although she never knew me, I want to thank Frau T*** for her birthday present. And I promise her, we shall love her sideboard as much as she could possibly wish it to be loved.

Oct 12, 2012

Jamie's cordon bleu guide to cooking a thriller

Venice Biennale 2009, KR
What are the necessary ingredients if you want to cook up a good thriller? This is something I have been thinking about a lot and here, dear reader, is my recipe:

1) One genuine moral dilemma – the hero or heroine should have a certain amount of realistic doubt about the rightness of their course of action.  It’s also important that the hero / heroine is flawed but is able to overcome their deficiencies (unless it’s a tragedy, in which case they have to die). By the end of the novel the hero / heroine should have learnt something and become a better and stronger person. Harry Potter plainly had a lot to learn.

2) Four to five plot twists – you need the readers to be constantly surprised so that they carry on reading. This means the plot has to be constructed like a jigsaw puzzle so that you don’t see the complete picture until the last piece is in place.

I read some advice from a Hollywood screenwriter once that explained the essential elements of a screenplay. He said in the first scene you introduce your characters, in the second scene you send a dog to chase them up a tree and the rest of the film is about how they get down from the tree without being bitten by the dog. It sounds easy, but the difficulty is in allowing the characters to nearly get down from the tree, and then getting the dog to chase them up again until they find a way to get the dog locked up/shot/given a bone.

3) Buckets of motivation – all your characters need to have plausible reasons for doing the things they do. I hate thrillers where the baddy is a psychopath. It is such a lazy way for the author to allow absolutely anything to happen. If you look at history, even the very worst bad guys always had you a seemingly logical explanation for what they were doing.
And how many physically violent psychos are out there anyway?
Well, now I come to think of it, my next door neighbour looks very scary when he starts cutting up wood for the winter with his chain saw…

4) A spoonful of obscure knowledge – the reader needs to feel they’ve learnt something from reading your story. The classic example is ‘The Da Vinci Code’. At the end of it the reader feels they’ve got the inside story on Leonardo da Vinci, the Catholic Church, and the true relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Whether any of it is true is irrelevant, the reader can safely immerse themselves in a strange and exciting world and come away entertained and with some mildly esoteric knowledge.

5) A pinch of violence  – obviously if you have your characters being chased up a tree by a dog, the dog has to have teeth to make it believable. There are two forms of violence available, physical or psychological/emotional. I think Elmore Leonard (e.g  ‘Get Shorty’) does physical violence very well. Quick but with not too much detail so the reader has to use their imagination.  Psychological violence can last longer than physical violence. For me, Jane Austen is the biggest bitch on the block when it comes to managing this. The way Fanny Price is bullied in ‘Mansfield Park’ by everybody is positively sadistic. 

6)  One to two compulsory sex scenes romance is optional, but sex is a must. At least one scene. It’s interesting observing the different intensity that an author gives to their sex scene. Robert Harris (‘Vaterland’ ‘The Ghost Writer’) is very restrained. I imagine his editor sends him emails insisting that he writes in some sex and he only does it reluctantly. Ken Follett (‘Pillars of the Earth’) or Ronan Bennet (‘Zugzwang’) seem to enjoy themselves much more. Lots of moaning. 
An interesting question to consider is the potential influence of the ‘Fifty shades of Grey’ trilogy by EL James on novelists (yes, I have read it – at least the first one. An excellent example of point number 4 above). She has really raised the stakes as regards the amount of sex in a mainstream novel.
However, my feeling is that for a good thriller, one scene is more than enough. Apart from anything else, it’s very difficult to do well.  My favourite living writer, Martin Amis, wrote:
“Good sex is impossible to write about. Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can't do — like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.”
You can definitely see that with ‘Fifty shades of Grey’. Just one boring earth-shattering orgasm after another. As Boy George said, I’d rather have a cup of tea.

Anyway, throw all the ingredients into a word processor, slosh a few bottles of wine down the author, let it all marinade for a few months and then cook the author's brains at high temperature for about four weeks and there you are - one completed thriller. How easy is that?

Oct 7, 2012

The story so far...

Venice Biennale, 2009, KR
I said that today I would provide a summary of the plot. Before I do, I have to tell you about one of my favourite books on writing fiction. It’s an amazing, slightly mad attempt to categorize all the different stories in the world into seven genres called “The Seven Basic Plots” (ISBN 0826452094) written by Christopher Booker. His categories are:

1) Overcoming the monster (‘Jaws’, ‘Beowulf’).
2) Rags to riches (‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Cinderella’).
3) The quest (‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’).
4) Voyage and return (‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’).
5) Comedy (‘Some Like it Hot’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’).
6) Tragedy (‘Macbeth’, ‘Anna Karenina’).
7) Rebirth (‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Fidelio’).

Can you think of a novel that doesn’t fit into one of these genres in some form?

Anyway, my own plot is slowly developing. Of the seven possibilities above, I think it’s going to be in number 2 – the quest. So, here – in its primeval form – is the basic idea:

The story’s heroine has a brother, who was apparently killed when working as a journalist in a war zone (not sure where, yet). The heroine continues her life in Munich (yes, that’s fixed, the reasons will be explained in a future post) for several years, but gradually becomes convinced that her brother isn’t dead. Because of her work (something to do with the tourist industry), the heroine travels between Munich, the former war zone and other countries and starts to uncover traces of her brother in various places. She comes to believe that her brother didn’t die at all, but arranged his own disappearance because it was convenient (for reasons unknown at present).
Her belief that he is still alive is treated with disbelief by her family, polite disdain by the authorities but by increasing anxiety by certain suspicious characters from the former war zone. There are several attempts to persuade her not to continue this search - which the heroine ignores. The threats turn into murder attempts when the heroine accidentally uncovers something criminal about certain senior government figure in the former war zone, relating to their past.
She thinks that what she has uncovered (I don’t know what it is, yet) was what caused her brother to disappear. But gradually she realizes that the people threatening her are not necessarily sent by the suspicious characters from the war zone. There are other powerful figures who are threatened by what she has uncovered … and does it even have anything to do with her brother? And could it be that she could herself profit from whatever it is?


Well, at the moment it’s a bit of a mess and the end result might be totally different. But I need a starting point for my imagination and we’ll have to see what comes along. The complete list of characters will come later, but I think my heroine will be supported by an ex-husband (who works on the railways in some form) her teenage son and a Tarot card reader.

Oh yes. My first major change. Originally I thought it was going to be a scary, dark thriller, possibly tragic. But now I think I want to do more of a scary but light-hearted  thriller, along the lines of ‘Charade’ with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. With lots of confusing twists and a happy end. Have a look at a clip from ‘Charade’ here.

Oct 3, 2012

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” Mark Twain

The novel’s action will begin with the killing of a journalist in a war zone. What the novel then traces is the ripple effect an event like this can have and the quote above is a great introduction to a central theme I want to explore – denial.
In the face of a disaster, people often resort to various types of denial in order to cope with the situation, either consciously or unconsciously. Of course, this doesn't only apply to people; organisations and governments do it for reasons of realpolitik, to justify an unjustifiable course of action or simply to protect their image with their stakeholders or voters.
I want to write about the different forms this very powerful defense mechanism can take and how damaging it can be for the other elements of the system within which the denial is taking place when it isn’t recognized.

By the way, some people emailed me to say they had trouble submitting comments. If you want to do so, click on the word ‘Comments’ below this post.