Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Short Stories 1

In assembling this first collection of short stories I've chosen to adopt the device used by my short story hero, Paul Gallico, the pre-emptive essay. I first came across the structure in Gallico's collection entitled Confessions of a Storyteller. In that volume Gallico explains the circumstances under which each story was written and describes the appropriate background. The book is now out of print and the essays which precede each story are particularly helpful in explaining the historical significance.

In my own case, the essays are sometimes included after the story where I want to avoid revealing elements of the actual story in the essay. More than that, at least two of the stories were written originally for my grandchildren and the essays seek to explain and expand the learning element I've tried to include in the story.

As I've indicated in my website, I'm a great admirer of the short story format, not least because it adds to the art of simple storytelling the additional challenge of limited time or space depending on whether the original story is for broadcast or print. The extreme example of this challenge is, I suppose, poetry in which the writer must use words that not only meet the criteria of the poem but also embrace the widest and most specific meanings required by the poetry.

'I'll Be The Brightest Star...'

This story demanded the fitting of the story of my father's family dating from the early decades of the 19th century into an account of life in rural Camarthenshire and the coal, iron and steel industries of the Welsh ‘valleys’. That ought to have been easy but I had a problem from the start - my father's early story was littered with inaccurate official dates and areas in which I lacked any records at all. Clearly the simplest solution was to abandon the project as history and write it as a novel.

Like my previous novels, this story existed under a number of titles before it was eventually published as I’ll be the brightest star... An earlier title, There’ll Be Grass Growing In The Streets (of Dowlais), was an important, accurate and relevant quotation given to me by my father. However, it seemed to me that while it captured the sense of poverty amidst inhuman conditions in South Wales, it omitted the positive eventual outcome. 

Since research is an important part of any creative storytelling, the preparation for this novel included a steep learning curve for me. One starts off any genealogical research with the assumption that official sources, especially those of relatively recent vintage are accurate. I was quickly disabused of this assumption by a most helpful archivist at Llanelli library. Nowadays census returns are completed by each householder. This was not always so; in the early 20th and 19th centuries census-takers called at each house, obtained the information verbally and completed the forms themselves. Since most census-takers were English-speakers, none of the spelling of names or addresses on Welsh census forms can be regarded as completely accurate. Equally, people giving the information often had a long-held reluctance to provide accurate information, notwithstanding the legal penalties for not doing so. For example, I thought I’d stumbled across a rare error or conflict in the census return for 1901 which appeared to record my father – a six-month-old infant – living with his mother at an address in Tredegar while she was also recorded as resident with her husband and their three sons – including my father (again) – at an address in Dowlais, two valleys to the west.  

To exacerbate the situation, being speaking only Welsh was still regarded by some people – including some Welsh people – as an indication of a person’s poor general intelligence. The Blue Books, published in 1847, exacerbated this belief. They were the result of a UK government commission, ostensibly an examination of the educational standards in Wales. The result, drawn up by three English-speaking Church of England ministers, was extremely critical of morals and social trends as well as educational standards in the principality. For many years, census forms used in Wales included a column which required the language/s spoken by each person on the form, to be recorded as Welsh, English or Dual. A combination of the long-term effects of the Blue Books and a general feeling emanating from central government that people speaking only Welsh were somehow inferior, led many people who did speak only Welsh reporting themselves to the census clerks as bilingual. 

Originally I hoped that readers would complete the book wondering which parts or characters in my story were real people and which inventions. Ultimately I decided to reveal those answers but I do wonder from time to time how many readers might guess which characters were real and which were my imagination. 

Passing Unseen

Passing Unseen is a melange of several stories. Taken as a whole they represent an element referenced in the quotation from Robert Pirsig’s seminal book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, part of which is the title of the book. Several of the stories are based on actual events; the crash of a US bomber in 1944 and the rescue of the crew by groups of the French Resistance; the part they played working at a Resistance Field Operating Hospital as it was driven higher into the alps by the German Mountain troops; the PoW camp operated by the Resistance at which collaborators and others who’d committed treason were held; the remarkable dash by units of the US 7th Army who relieved Grenoble seven days after landing in Provence when the plan was for them to arrive 90 days after the invasion; and the US and British teams parachuted into the Vercors stronghold to help organise the French Resistance – all these elements were true. I added fictional but accurate stories about the attacks by the Resistance on the railways, the torture of civilians by the Germans and their home-grown French Gestapo, the Milice, and the bravery of individual civilians and churchmen. The primary challenge was to pull all these elements together into a timeline understandable to the casual reader and not just the committed academic.

I’d already told the story of the rescued US bomber crew by the French Resistance in an interactive multimedia programme I made for the Museum of Alpe d’Huez which stands today in the locality where the action took place. During the years I had a home in the mountains I met many former members of the Resistance including the doctor who led the hospital and a resistant who'd privately published a book about the incident. Through him, I was put in touch with the surviving members of the crew who told me a somewhat different though no less exciting version of the tale. They also told me of two other American groups that were operating clandestinely in the area. I translated the book and also discovered an earlier account of the narrative that had been published in the American edition of Readers Digest. 

It wasn't all plain sailing. I was frustrated by the intransigence of the official French archivists who did nothing to help my research and indeed on occasion blatantly lied about facts I knew to be true. For example, the official French history is that the Germans were driven out of France at the end of WW2 by French forces – that’s the French forces who capitulated in 1940 –  and that no other allied forces were involved. 

The challenge I had was to slot all the elements into a logical timeline so that the reader could understand the way that disparate groups acting in different places and on different schemes all melded into a cohesive force working against the Germans. Frankly, it didn't work and always tended to revert to a diary format unsuited to a novel.

Ironically, I found the ultimate solution was to discard the notion of a linear timeline entirely and to treat the whole as we might have treated a complex multimedia AV programme in the past. I realised that the events were living examples of the phenomenon Robert Pirsig describes, specifically the transient interactions we each have with others every day. It was clear that to make the book capture the essence of Pirsig's random 'selection' it could not be a linear, time-lined history and so I told the story through the lives of key characters and, very occasionally, the groups in which they were operating. 

By this time many of the real-life characters and many more of their descendants were aware of the book and I came under pressure, mostly helpful but very occasionally critical, intent on ensuring that I didn't misrepresent the characters in which they were interested. I'd already added other related but imaginary strands and decided to fictionalise the entire story. I hid the real characters in composite players with different names and back-stories and placed the key events in imaginary locations.

Because the genesis of the story had been the French account, I initially allowed my tale to end at the same point, the final meeting of the bomber crew with their French rescuers. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was tempted to wrap up the loose ends with an 'aftermath' chapter but this time the device felt like a genuine cop-out. I decided to continue the story, much now fictional, following the lives of the main characters over the next 20 years.

Authors are probably unwise if they allow themselves 'favourites' among their work but because I believe the structure emphasises the key element of Pirsig's concept and yet even though it's not a linear story the reader is encouraged to read it linearly and not randomly. I am especially pleased with the outcome. I may also have worked the 'aftermath' device out of my writing habit. If so, all the better.

A Distinctive Flourish

The writing of my second and third novels overlapped, though this was not intended at the outset. As you'll read in my post about Passing Unseen, that was the second story I decided to write. As it turned out, the complexity of that story demanded several changes after the first version had been completed. Since I'd already embarked on my third story, A Distinctive Flourish, I decided to continue with that tale and return to Passing Unseen later.

Several elements that emerged in A Distinctive Flourish occurred to me at very different times. Each was noted in my computer, then forgotten. Thus the genesis of A Distinctive Flourish was the loose structure of a novel written, abandoned the re-written several years later. This is how it happened.

The 'trigger' for the writing of the story wasn't specially unique and has been employed by any number of writers, namely the accidental switching of property. Because this isn’t a unique device, it may one of the reasons I didn’t pursue the story immediately but simply filed it away.

Later, thanks to my career in the civil aviation business I became aware of the procedure generally followed when a passenger dies in mid-flight. This item too was noted and saved away on my computer. 

Later still I found myself saddled with a substantial bad debt by a ruthless and dishonest client and went through the ghastly process of trying to save my own business.

Finally, a shortly after recalling that occurrence, I surprised myself when writing a sequence in which a photographer is searching through darkened studio which someone has tried to burn down when he stumbles across a dead body. As he bends over the body to confirm that the body is dead, the ‘body’ grasps him around the neck in a final effort before it expires and releases him. 

Once I started to write the story – to which I initially gave the working title of Flash, Bang, Wallop – I found the initial structure flowed quite naturally and I was able to weave geographical, historical and political elements I’d become aware of during my aviation career into the initial structure. When I reviewed the initial draft of the story I realised that the conclusion was a point at which the hero would have to choose between two rather obvious options, either of which would be satisfactory but not entirely fulfilling to me as a storyteller.

It was the advice of one of my trusted and much-valued critics that prompted me to consider an entirely different conclusion to Flash, Bang, Wallop. This modification adds a new and unexpected dramatic element leading you, my reader, to an entirely different ending to which I give a final surprise twist in the last line. This major amendment appeared while Passing Unseen was still developing so Flash, Bang, Wallop, now renamed A Distinctive Flourish, became my second published novel.

By the time I started writing this story I'd discovered how enjoyable writing could be for the author - moving the location of the action from place to place around the globe is one of those pleasures. The 20 years I spent in the airline business gave me invaluable background and if I've managed to capture the vivid emotion of sunset at Tippecanoe battlefield, or the rundown Sheraton hotel in Indianapolis where I witnessed my first shootout between police and a fugitive, or how some photographic models behave in private, it's because these things actually happened to me.

If this story added anything to my education as a writer it was the importance of getting details right. For example, the largest Haliburton camera case packed full with US $100 bills couldn't be lifted by a man, let alone be mistaken for a couple of cameras and some lenses.

The element which I used in my debut novel and originally included in my second and third novels was the 'aftermath' wrap-up. It felt to me like the 'happy ending' scene that used to occupy the last 30 seconds of each episode of Kojak or The Waltons - the antithesis of Shane riding off into the sunset and not spending the rest of his life with the family whose lives he saved. On reflection, I'm glad I dropped it.

Finally, some readers of my first novel questioned whether it was economically wise not to finish the novel with the potential of a follow-up novel or even a series. To be honest it wasn't something that actually crossed my mind. In any case, I find stories which reach a definitive conclusion and even leave the reader imagining what might have happened next, more satisfying to read than a series that in the worst cases end with a clear 'hook' to the next book.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The storyteller's tale

If you've come to this blog via my author web-page, I thought it would be interesting to jot down a few thoughts and recollections about the whole business of writing and how I came to write these stories at all.

It seems obvious to me that politicians have an innate arrogance because, in a democracy, they implicitly think they know better than I do how to run my life. Creative writers have a similar arrogance because they are convinced they've got a story to tell that other people will want to read and indeed, pay to read. It's easy to dismiss that self-worth when thinking about great, established writers like Shakespeare, but how about Philip Howells aged 17 who thought that people might be interested in his reflections on the annual cycle of the meadow opposite his house? Not quite as many

Why do people choose to become authors? Even the term provokes controversy for the differences between that and writer or storyteller serve to illustrate the subtle range of definitions that can be applied to creative scribblers. One of my inspirations was an American journalist and storyteller, Paul Gallico. Perhaps influenced by his own career path, one of his early opinions was that writers should write about their own experiences. It’s not surprising that Gallico should have held that view, after all, he was a keen sportsman for much of his early life and in his quest for personal experience, sparred with Jack Dempsey so he could describe how it felt to be knocked out by a champion boxer. As a seventeen-year-old with only a fairly mundane upbringing to draw upon, I found Gallico’s view frustrating. Although I can’t recall actually developing the thought, I should have realised that other writers I admired, for example, Tolkien, Bradbury and Asimov obviously couldn’t have experienced the subjects about which they’d written so compellingly.

Anyway, as my salary-earning career in civil aviation led me into writing promotional pieces for my employer, my creative storytelling rather lapsed until, 19 years after joining the airline I started my own creative business, using the medium of audio-visual to tell my clients’ commercial stories. Although, like many similar undertakings, AV was a co-operative, team business, I always reserved for myself the task of script-writing. That led eventually but directly to creative storytelling in my later life.

My first writing output covered a wide range of subjects; many of my earliest efforts complied with Gallico’s opinion and were developed from my own experiences. Only rarely did I lapse into complete imagination. For example, my first novel sprang directly from my fulfilment of a long-held desire, to learn to fly.