Sunday, 13 December 2020

Easbury Green

 One of the first decisions I made about Easbury Green was that it was going to be a substantial novel. My two previous books had been quite short, each something less than 50,000 words and I felt I wanted to get my teeth into a project more like Passing Unseen or A Distinctive Flourish.

At the same time, I also wanted to see if I could rise to the challenge of telling a story most of which would take place in a relatively small geographical area. That would remove the luxury of a range of far-flung locales. It would also mean creating characters that could fulfil a number of different roles in the story, just as the casts of television soap operas live through a much larger range of situations than real people in such a community would experience. Haven’t most people in Britain smiled at the number of wives, fiancées and girlfriends Ken Barlow has had during the 60 years Coronation Street has been broadcast?

Easbury Green is an imaginary village in West Sussex. In medieval days the area near where I’ve sited it was in one of two ‘hundreds’ West Easwrith and East Easwrith. In the way that names evolve over 500 years, that's led me to the fictitious name for my village and the title of my novel. 

I’ve opened my story in the spring of 1415. That may lead students of Shakespeare or English history to think they have discovered a clue to my story but let me assure them, it’s partly a red herring and partly something that emerges only in the final chapter!

In fact, most of the story takes place in the latter half of the 20th century. I chose that period because within its confines many English villages like Easbury Green underwent far-reaching changes and it's the story of the people who lived through those times that I've told in my novel.

Finally, a word about my books that is particularly relevant to Easbury Green. A number of my kind readers have commented that my stories often involve a large cast of characters. Some have told me that if they come back to one of my stories after a pause in reading, they sometimes have difficulty recalling who particular characters are. To help overcome this difficulty I’ve started including a cast of characters at the end of my books. My hope is that I've not inadvertently revealed any plot details. 

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Not as easy as picking cotton after all.

The working title of my sixth novel was Easier Than Picking Cotton. It's part of a quotation from the sadly departed Glen Campbell. As an enthusiastic, if under-talented guitarist myself, Campbell was one of my heroes though that was far from the only reason I used his quote as a working title. My story revolves around the life and loves of Warwick James. He shares two characteristics with Glen Campbell, he was a gifted genius on the guitar and he was part of a musical phenomenon that influenced the quality and the business of popular music in the USA and the UK. That phenomenon was the loose, informal associations of gifted musicians who, we now know, actually produced much of the best-known popular music over two decades or more. Glen Campbell is now well-known as a member of 'The Wrecking Crew', musicians primarily based in the Los Angeles area, though at the time no-one outside the music business had ever heard the name. 

In my story 'The Workmen' is a similar, though imaginary, collection of musicians who were called upon by recording studio bosses and record producers in Nashville when making records by the 'celebrities' of the moment. Invariably these 'names' usually had their own backing bands or groups who, due to lack of talent or experience, simply needed too long in the studio getting their music note-perfect. Time, in the studio, is money. Instead of patiently waiting for the 'new celebrities' to get their notes right, the producers called-in experienced musicians like 'The Workmen' (or The Wrecking Crew') who could walk into the studio, glance through the charts - the written arrangements - and play them. Not only were they invariably note-perfect but they could also play their instruments in the style of the band or group they were replacing.

Of course, some of the backing groups resented being reduced to miming to the work of the pros on television or having their photos taken with the 'celebrity star' but when they got paid for doing little – and recognising that the pop music 'machine' would soon discard them and their star – they kept quiet and made the best of it.

With this in mind, I realised the working title wasn't going to work - I needed a title more relevant to my story. I toyed with a number of alternatives before, in a blindingly obvious moment of revelation, The Guitarist jumped off the page. In fact, there was just one moment of doubt - when I ran the title through the Amazon search engine and discovered that the book would probably be surrounded on the Amazon page by countless guitar tutor books. The solution was to add – for only the second time – a subtitle and 'A novel' was added. 

Time will tell if it worked!

As my regular readers will expect, this is only part of my story. In the course of making his career in music, Warwick meets and becomes an integral part of the musical life of Eva Cantrell. In my story, she's an Australian-born jazz pianist and singer and although Warwick's own love life (another strand of the novel) doesn't involve Eva, nevertheless her career becomes inextricably intertwined with his. Needless to add, although I refuse to confirm or deny any parallels, my admiration for a particular jazz lady is a complete coincidence. 

What's in a title?

There's much more to getting one's novel to the reader than merely writing, editing and proof-reading the text. I learnt a number of lessons by publishing through Amazon Kindle - this post is prompted by just one - the title.

I originally called my first novel 'A Woman Wept'. That title had the merit of being the last line of the book, it touched directly on an important, though not pivotal, moment in the story and, at just three words, was pretty snappy and memorable. Up close – and by that I mean from the viewpoint of the author who'd sweated over the story's structure, the grammar, the development and the editing – it seemed not a bad title. Then I stepped back, figuratively speaking, and tried to see the title from the viewpoint of a putative reader considering mine from a list of ten or more novels on an Amazon page. That gave me a completely different perspective. I found myself conjuring images of kitchen-sink dramas, of depressing if worthy tales of domestic, family tragedy, personal loss – and suddenly the title didn't seem nearly as suitable as I'd first thought. I don't know if it's true but I wouldn't be surprised if the big commercial publishing houses don't have whole departments devoted to inventing titles for their authors' works. That surmise seems to be born out by a quick look down the list of best-sellers, most of which have titles of the snappy variety. Then again some traditional authors get away with what would otherwise be unsaleable titles; take Peter Weiss, for example. His book The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is highly considered by critical readers.

So, in the tradition of 'brainstorming sessions' so beloved by companies when I was working for one, I cleared my desk and my mind and tried decide what my story was about at its core and then work on a title that was relevant, snappy and saleable. I won't spoil the story if you haven't read it but at its heart is an unresolvable difference between a father and his stepson. Many people would think that merely accepting that the difference of opinion exists and allowing each party to live their lives without reference to each other would be a practical solution, but not only would that not make for an exciting story but we've all heard or know of people who can't be that sensible. Much of the story relates ways in which the protagonists exercise their disagreement and seek vengeance for the supposed hurt. Starting from that line of thought I eventually found a delightful quotation from Machiavelli, 'Never do an enemy a small injury'. That had a degree of sarcasm that appealed to me but as a title the clause didn't score high on the 'snap-ometer'. Yet I felt it was close and finally chose my title by reducing the quotation to 'A Small Injury'.

But my publishing education still wasn't over. I designed the cover, added a subtitle for the first only time and published to Amazon. Very quickly the company decided the book met their various criteria and my debut novel was published. Unfortunately, in my ignorance I'd not run the title through Amazon's search engine. That would have shown clearly what I still had to discover when my novel went on sale. I searched on the title within the 'books' filter and was thrilled when my book appeared at the top of the first page. What was less thrilling was that among other books the Amazon search engine considered met by the search term, 'A Small Injury', was a selection of books aimed at veterinary surgeons explaining ways to treat injuries to small animals! Oddly, I haven't yet received a message from a vet explaining that my book was probably the least helpful volume he'd read before operating on a small animal.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Who is Rufus T. Weeks?

Looking back on my career as a storyteller, I think Who is Rufus T. Weeks? was the first of my novels to have almost no conformity with Paul Gallico’s advice to only write about things one has experienced. Although it has any number of twists and turns, the plot has one significant and over-riding revelation. Keeping my reader guessing what this is, is the principal challenge running through the story. Happily, my early readers and critics confirmed that, irrespective of their personal backgrounds or experience, none of them guessed the answer to the question I pose in the title. This is important because the story that unfolds is essentially the journey followed by my hero, Markus Jenkyns, as he tries to discover the answer himself. To keep my reader as committed to the story I must keep him or her as puzzled as my hero.

Because this story has its genesis elsewhere than my experience, makes it more difficult to explain how it came to be written without revealing the plot. Having said that, like many of my generation, the imagery of Jesse Owens, the black American athlete who demolished Adolf Hitler’s wish that the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin would demonstrate the supremacy of his vaunted Aryan race is most vivid. The less well-known racial bigotry Owens faced when he returned to the USA sadly detracts from his achievements on the track in Berlin.

If they wish, creative storytellers can choose which of any bêtes-noirs they choose to cast as the ‘baddies’ in their stories. In Rufus T. Weeks my sights fell upon the American National Security Agency and the Roman Catholic Church although I stress that my novel is not a hobby-horse for any opinions, rather that both organisations seem inept at managing the responsibility that their strength and power gives them. They are by no means alone though it would be equally fair to note that it’s unlikely that Médicins Sans Frontières or Cancer Research are likely to appear in this role in future stories.

Finally, on a related topic, I do find that as I develop characters, especially strong ones, I sometimes find myself thinking of people I’ve known who share some of my characters’ admirable qualities or traits. In I’ll be the brightest star..., I found myself very drawn to the character of Alejandra who voices that line declaring her undying love for my hero. In this novel, as I was describing Quentin Salisbury, the ‘Old Africa Hand’ who plays a significant part in the unravelling of the puzzle, I often thought of a man who’s been a constant and loyal friend for some 60 years. Although my friend shares few of the specific experiences I credit to Quentin Salisbury, he does have the now-unfashionable sense of doing what is right regardless of personal risk. Not for nothing was he appointed to an honour he richly deserves and is one reason that I dedicate the novel to Lloyd Paxton, MBE.

A Small Injury

My first attempt to write a novel was transparently inspired by my qualification as a GA (General Aviation) pilot. Unfortunately, even after a serious re-write the work continued to feel like a flying manual rather than a thriller and it was only after several more heavy edits that the storytelling emerged from the flying background. All the while, in the real world Al Qaeda terrorists managed to take control of three or four American commercial flights and crash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The knee-jerk reaction by the authorities, who were at least complicit in that they failed to prevent the initial hijacking from occurring, changed General Aviation overnight. It’s interesting to note that there has never been a detailed explanation of how the hijackers managed to get their weapons on board the aircraft and the likelihood remains that other terrorists were involved among the ground crews at the various airports who were never traced and brought to trial. Moreover, the terrorist pilots were not hobby pilots but had been trained at commercial pilot schools, mainly in the USA. That was where the terrorist pilots learned to fly multi-engined, commercial jet aircraft.

Despite this, the GA fraternity around the world was an easy target for the authorities desperate to be seen to be taking instant action, no matter how irrelevant. Regulations were changed immediately severely restricting the hobby enjoyed by GA pilots. For instance, infractions of rules like accidental entry into controlled airspace that for years had earned a strong letter of warning from the aviation authorities to the owner of the plane became overnight an instant and substantial fine. In some places, the authorities were even more extreme – like Chicago. For many years very small aircraft had flown in and out of Meigs Field, a short, private and convenient runway near Chicago’s waterfront. Overnight, the mayor of the city, with no sanction or right, ordered mechanical excavators to destroy the runway in an act of deplorable illegality that many would say could only be imagined let alone tolerated in a totalitarian state. 

The effect for me as a storyteller was that key parts of my tale that involved private flying became legally impossible to imagine. The only solution was for me to clearly set the story in a historical context before 9/11 had occurred. This solution seemed acceptable to my readers, not least because the detail of the flying involved was technically accurate and germane to the plausibility of the story.

Publication also gave me my first experience of titling a book, of writing a blurb for the back cover and the Amazon website, and of designing a cover image that would convey an accurate impression of the book and encourage people to buy it. Initially, I’d intended to call the story And a Woman Wept. This is the last line of the novel and refers to an important but incidental part of the story. I realised that it also gave the impression that the novel was more likely to fall into the ‘chick-lit’ genre rather than a mainstream thriller with an important element of adult family breakdown. I searched around and discovered a quotation from the scheming Italian, Machiavelli, Never Do Your Enemies A Small Injury. I liked the allusion to severe hurt – an important element in the story – but thought that just part of the quotation, A Small Injury, supported by the inclusion of the complete quote near the title page, would form an accurate yet intriguing title.

What I’d failed to understand was the way that Amazon’s filtering algorithm works. Even with the care I’d given to the title, when a user of the Amazon website searches for the novel by its title, the website returns, (as well as my novel), a range of books dealing with recommended ways to treat small, injured animals.

Finally, I made a firm decision not to leave the conclusion of this story open-ended or in any way available for the development of a sequel. Of course, sequels and series of books built around a constant theme or character are big business. Just think of the James Bond, Father Brown, Jason Bourne, Hercule Poirot or Jack Reacher franchises for example. Several of my helpful critics asked why I’d not structured this, my first story, so that such development could have been possible. The fact is there were two reasons. First I enjoyed telling the story for itself, not as if I was constructing a product. Second, the conclusion to A Small Injury embodies a crucial personal sacrifice which would have been lost had I structured the tale so as to produce a sequel. Even after four more novels, I remain of the same general mind though it is true that my more recent novels have included some characters and aspects that could be developed as a sort of franchise if I wished to do so in future. However, the fact remains that I enjoy writing stories rather than developing a literary soap opera.