A Writer Writes (but not always)

A Writer Writes (but not always)

I have just read a blog post by author KJ Charles in which she warns against the guilt authors feel when they are not writing.

But hurling yourself into a book before you’re ready can be at best a waste of time, probably disheartening, and sometimes a project killer,

she writes at KJ Charles, When Not to Write. She also warns against writing when you’re not interested in writing, because then the reader won’t be interested either; and not forcing an idea, because forcing an idea can kill it. Knowing when not to write is important, she says, and I agree.

Here’s my take about not writing.

A Writer Writes

Remember ‘Throw Momma From The Train?’ that film about a frustrated author teaching creative writing? Well, Larry, played by Billy Crystal, tells his class just that; a writer writes.

But Not Always.

You know how it is when you meet someone new and they ask, ‘So, what do you do?’ and you want to say, ‘None of your business,’ but you don’t because you were well brought up. These days, I reply, ‘I’m a writer,’ because I am. I am also an author because I write novels, but a writer because I also hire myself out to write copy for websites and others when I need income. Which is all the time. I write just about every day, even if it’s only in my head, but there are some days when I simply don’t bother. Why?

I’ll explain.

Flowing

Sometimes a novel flows. I start with an idea for an opening and a climax, a theme and a device which, in the mysteries, is the key to unlocking the mystery, or the shroud that wraps the mystery and must be solved. (* Examples below.) With those in my head, or occasionally on paper, I set off on the adventure. From then on, the characters lead me down a path I have vaguely outlined in my head, and before I know it, six weeks have passed, and I am at the end of the first draft. Several of the Clearwater Mysteries happened like this because, after books one and two, I had a cast of formed characters, so I didn’t have to think about creating them, only developing them.

When I am flowing like this, I can write upwards of 6,000 words a day. Editing them later, of course, is another matter.

Slowing

On some occasions, I progress slowly, and accepting when that is necessary is a question of experience. ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’, for example, was always going to be an end of series book. Therefore, I had loose ends to tie up, events from ‘Banyak & Fecks’ which took place several years before had to come back into play, I had to revisit characters from the past and plot where they were now, put it all in the context of a legal complication and the influenza pandemic of 1889/90, and have it progress through a timeline. However, it was also a novel that started something else, the Larkspur Academy, and the follow-on series of books, the Larkspur Mysteries. That thread had to be plotted in, and those foundations laid. (They actually began in book nine, ‘Negative Exposure.’)

Thus, if a novel needs technical plotting rather than running free, I tend to write more slowly. I will imagine a scene while on a walk or watching a dull TV show, and will write it up the next day once it has fermented.

Writing like this, I can write up to 3,000 words a day, but they are more thought out and will take less editing later.

Knowing

When not to write is another matter again. Some day I know that whatever I write will be crap, yet I still make myself write something. There’s nothing more inspiring than a blank piece of paper, and each empty Word doc is a challenge. Even if the words are no good, at least you got some practise, right?

Yes, well, not always. Sometimes, as KJ Charles says, forcing an idea can kill it. So, leave it alone and go and do something else. In my case, on days like this, I go and research. I find that is not only useful for my general knowledge and world-building, but it can set off creative ideas I’d not thought of.

Knowing when not to write is as important as ‘A writer writes’, and again, comes with experience. If you’re new to writing and have the feeling of ‘Now’s not the time to write’ because you are scared to, or worse, couldn’t be bothered, be careful not to make that an excuse for not working. Sometimes writing when you’re not in the mood can work, just don’t push it, or let the poor results put you off. I know when I am writing poorly, but I also know when I am page-filling (**see below), and I know when I am writing well.

So…

Flowing, Slowing and Knowing (when to hold back and fill your time with something more positive) are my three aspects of knowing when not to write.

A writer writes, Mr Crystal, just not all the time.

* The mystery device.

An example of a device, a key that unlocks the mystery, would be the painting in Clearwater six, ‘Artful Deception.’ This is different to the ‘smoking gun’, which, to my mind, is the ‘ah-ha!’ moment of cracking the case; when a character says, ‘Oh my God! Why didn’t I think of that?’ Or finds that vital clue which has evaded him all this time.

An example of a shroud that wraps the mystery would be the poem by Tennyson in Clearwater four, ‘Fallen Splendour.’

** Page filling

I was doing it yesterday, describing the interior of the British Museum Reading Room in 1890 in great detail. What I was actually doing was familiarising myself with a location and developing an idea. A lot of what I wrote won’t make it to the book, and I’ve done that many times before. In fact, as a treat, I will let you see a chapter which never made it to a book. This was going to be ‘Men of a Similar Heart’, a Clearwater Mystery about a death at a public school when Clearwater was young. I wrote the first five chapters, and had a thoroughly fun time doing so, and had the entire plot worked out. But then… it didn’t feel right, went so slowly I knew I didn’t want to be there. I knew something wasn’t right, so I put it aside for later. I still have the draft chapters though, and I’ll put part of one up now.

Remember, this is draft one, unedited, not proofed, and may come into use later.


Men of a Similar Heart, A Clearwater Mystery, Chapter Two in part, first draft. Copyrighted.

02

Witheringly thin and pale, the man clung to the back of his chair for support. His eyes hung in his face as two dark circles above prominent cheekbones, themselves overhangs of hollow cheeks. Silas didn’t know the man, but he was immediately concerned. Falconbridge was Archer’s age, but looked twenty years older, his eyes were tinted yellow, and his lips nearly non-existent. The only thing that suggested his thirty years was his hair, cut in a younger man’s fashion and thick, the temples, however, showing streaks of grey against black. Silas assumed he needed help discovering who was behind his poisoning; it was the only reason he could think of for an ill man to consider a private investigator.

He was soon to be proved wrong.

‘Clearwater,’ Falconbridge said, a smile on his skeletal face. ‘How the devil are you?’

Barely contained by skin, his Adam’s apple rose and fell like the puck of Silas’ imagined high striker, and the hand he offered was more bone than flesh.

‘Better than you by my first examination,’ Archer replied. ‘Freddie, are you ill?’

‘No, Archer, I am quite healthy.’ Hands were shaken and withdrawn. ‘I am suffering no disease or disability, but I am gravely concerned. Sit. Dine. I shall explain all.’

‘My secretary and friend, Silas Hawkins.’ For obvious reasons, it was as close to a personal introduction as Archer ever made about Silas, and in this instance came with the added, ‘Hawkins is also one of our two lead investigators.’

Introductions made, and seats taken, Archer switched the conversation to a less dramatic topic than Falconbridge’s appearance, the menu.

On cue, a waiter appeared from a door hidden among the cartoon representations of London characters that ladened the panelled walls, and slithered to the table to serve water. As he did so, an unexpected beam of sunlight streamed through the tall windows, one of which was partially open allowing the sound of the street to invade, and the waiter asked if Their Lordships would rather have it closed. As Falconbridge was the host, Archer left the decision to him, and, to Silas’ horror, did the same with the meal. Falconbridge chose the most uninspiring of dishes accompanied by a German wine, and told the waiter to leave the window open but to stoke the fire.

‘An excellent choice,’ the waiter fawned, unconvinced, before putting logs in the grate and slipping from the room as greasily as he had entered.

‘Terribly sorry to have been so blunt,’ Archer said once they were alone. ‘I didn’t mean to be rude, Freddie, but you don’t look at all well.’

‘The matter is forgotten.’ Falconbridge waved away the faux pas with spindly fingers. ‘I have become accustomed to the reaction of late.’

‘What has gone wrong?’

‘Nothing is amiss with me,’ Falconbridge said, adjusting his napkin. ‘But I fear something has gone terribly wrong with a dear friend of mine.’

‘I would suggest he’s a very dear friend,’ Silas said, his mind already filtering information.

‘Why do you say that?’

To his credit, Falconbridge didn’t take umbrage at a mere secretary joining the conversation as if they were well acquainted, and his manner was civil. His tone suggested he had already accepted Silas as an investigator of worth, a sign, perhaps that he was desperate. Either that, or Archer had sold the agency’s talents to him in a private correspondence. Whatever the reason for the viscount’s acceptance, Silas needed to live up to the part, and thought like James would have done while applying Thomas’ impeccable manners.

Silas had spent enough time working with Dr Markland at the mission to have picked up a few technical words and some knowledge of illness, and employed his experience in the manner Markland used when at work.

‘A man,’ he began once he was sure of his words, ‘that orders a light lunch because he has no appetite. Excuse the forwardness, but I suggest you have not eaten well for two or three weeks at least. I am no doctor, Sir, but the description His Lordship gave of you bears little resemblance to what I see, and as the two of you last met six months ago, the change is dramatic.’

Falconbridge gawped from Silas to Archer, himself wide-eyed at the sudden change in his secretary.

‘Go on,’ Falconbridge said, more interested than affronted at the familiarity.

‘Again, forgive my boldness,’ Silas continued. ‘But as you say you are physically fit and well, I have to conclude that you are suffering from nervous exhaustion. You suggest a problem with a friend, but this person must mean more to you than the average chum, else why worry yourself to starvation?’

‘I agree,’ Archer said. ‘Either that, Freddie, or you have transformed through some curse, which, in this day and age, and for a man so well educated, I find unlikely.’ Leaning on his elbows with a wicked glint in his eye, he enthused, ‘Or you are lovesick. Who is she?’

Falconbridge also leant forward, but his eyes were neither wicked nor glinting. They were wide with wonder.

‘I knew I’d come to the right men,’ he said, cracking a smile of pale gums. ‘You’re right, of course, Clearwater, but the friend is not a lady.’

‘Oh?’

‘Before I say more…’

Falconbridge paused as the waiter slunk back to the table, presented the wine, opened it, had it approved, and poured. The moment the bottle was in the ice bucket, another waiter appeared, this one crookbacked with a face set in a permanent leer, and set down the first course; a depressing salad served with a suspicion of sardines.

Once the hidden door had thudded gently back into place, Falconbridge resumed his sentence.

‘I wanted to ask how your new venture is coming along.’

‘The electricity company, the Henwood stud farm or the detective agency?’ Archer enquired.

‘The agency. Are your men experienced?’

‘We are,’ Archer replied. ‘And I say we because I count myself among the number. Mr Hawkins has handled several successful cases. Our director, James Wright, you may have heard of as it was he who cracked The Case of the Poisonous Parakeet, as the more sensational press titled it. We also have among our number Doctor Philip Markland who devised the cure for the unfortunate victim, a Russian speaking man of action, another who specialises in firearms, and we have a range of experts on whom we can rely. Together, we have extensive knowledge of codes, mysteries, the law and other foul deeds.’

‘Most excellent,’ Falconbridge nodded. ‘But who are these men? Where did you find them?’

‘At home,’ Archer said, calmly investigating his salad.

Silas couldn’t start eating until the viscounts did, and Falconbridge showed no interest in his meal. Growing tired of the politeness and formality, he decided to move things along.

‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Jimmy was His Lordship’s valet, Andrej’s the coachman. The butler looks after the weapons in his cellar, and we’ve got an assistant housekeeper with a memory like a camera. Oh, and our man of all works knows a bit about mechanics. Our disguise man lives next door. You don’t need to worry about credentials, Your Lordship.’

‘I see that you come with the brevity of the Irish, Mr Hawkins,’ Falconbridge said, unfazed by what he had been told. ‘But I can’t quite place the accent.’

‘Dublin, My Lord, though raised in Westerpool.’

‘Ah, then that will be it. Please, do start.’

Silas did, but soon wished he hadn’t. Spoiled of late by Lucy’s overindulgence in the kitchen, a weak salad that smelt of Billingsgate leftovers was not exactly his cup of tea. A cup of tea would have gone down better than the insipid wine, and Archer’s barely concealed gasp of dismay when he took a sip, suggested he was of the same opinion.


And so it wittered on to the end of 3,700 words. I took from it the name Falconbridge (‘Negative Exposure’), and rather liked the descriptions of the waiters, but that was about it.

And so… To work. I hope to see you on Wednesday for the Work In Progress blog.

WIP: Week Three. Act One.

WIP: Week Three. Act One.

‘Agents of the Truth’ is coming along. I am now up to 20,000 words and am halfway through chapter eight. I had intended to reach 25,000 and the end of act one, but I may go over that target, which means we might be in for a longer novel. Either that, or there will be lots to edit. It’s zipping along, though, as per my usual style. Plenty of intrigues, some pressures building in the background for the characters to be challenged with later. I’ve also dropped clues for later (and noted them so I don’t forget to resolve them), and there has been some humour.

You might wonder what I mean by ‘Act One’, so let me explain. I’ve picked up the term from my screenplay writing, because films are all about structure, and are divided into acts. I have several books on the subject, and if you want to know more, I suggest two:

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler Mythic Structure for Writers

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

Here they are on my shelf beside my Jackson Marsh collection. Ann Zouroudi, who writes the Greek Detective Mysteries published by Bloomsbury, gave me the Vogler book, so it has a special place on my shelf. It’s a great book for understanding the journey of a hero through a classic story, which he breaks down into acts. The Aronson one is more filmmaking centred, and discusses other structures besides the four-act structure I favour. Both are invaluable for plotting, character arcs, and structure, whether for film or fiction.

Act One

I’ve read many discussions of the four-act structure of storytelling, and when you know what they are, you recognise them in films. A standard film script will be roughly 20 pages for each act, leading to an 80-page script, with each page being one minute of screen time. During that time, things happen that turn the plot and move things forward, and they always happen at the end of acts. I’m referring to the plot there, but along with the plot, a character will also develop, and that process goes through several stages of the four acts. (We’ll have a quick look at that in a moment.)

We often refer to act one to as ‘The normal world’, where everything is in its place and the hero/heroine is undisturbed. Then, a challenge comes along, he resists it, gets mentored, accepts it, and ‘steps over the threshold’ into the new and unexplored world of act two… and off we go. That’s known as the reluctant hero’s journey beginning. In my Clearwater world, the heroes are rarely reluctant, but I still use the same basic structure.

Without giving away too much, ‘Agents of the Truth’ starts out in Archer’s normal world, a villain makes a subtle appearance, the men at the academy are existing in their normal world too, but then one or two are asked to assist with something outside of their usual day-to-day. They accept the challenge, and away we go. Simple?

You can rest assured it won’t be!

Four Acts

Think of any standard horror film and you’ll easily be able to identify your four acts. Crudely put, they run like this.

Act 1, There is no shit

Act 2, What is this shit?

Act 3, What do we do about this shit?

Act 4, Shit dealt with

Or to use Titanic a more gentille example, with the end of act turning points:

Act 1, People board the Titanic, and it sets off

Act 2, Rose and Jack get it together, ship hits iceberg

Act 3, Ship is sinking, panic, ship sinks

Act 4, Jack dies, stories resolve, Rose dies

20,000 words

Having written many books and screenplays in the four-act structure, I now find I don’t need to remind myself of turning points, character arcs and so on. They come naturally to me, although they are always at the back of my mind. So, having reached 20,000 words and approached my end of act one target, I find I will go beyond it. That’s fine, the novel can be longer, or it can be cut, because I have not yet reached the turning point that will take us into act two.

In terms of writing, I should have written 25 or 30,000 words by now, but in the last couple of days, a few home-life things got in the way. I.e. Needing a new washing machine, having to take some paid work to make money, cooking a chocolate mousse, etc.

So, I shall leave this here, and get back to ‘Agents of the Truth’ (I like the title more each day), and I’ll see you on Saturday when there will be an interview with one of my characters. Dalston Blaze will be along to talk about his life in the workhouse, his love for Joe Tanner, and his move to the Larkspur Academy. I hope to see you then.

WIP: Week Two, Plotster and Panster


WIP: Week Two, Plotster and Panster

I am in my second week of writing Larkspur Three. I have the working title, ‘Agents of the Truth’, and I am currently halfway through chapter five of the first draft. I don’t know if you remember, but last week I said that I had plotted the four acts of this story, and was wondering what was going to take up the middle two. Well, now I find I have plenty going on in the middle two acts, and at the end, but not so much in the first quarter. Maybe what I mean is I have too many ideas for the middle and just enough for the first and last, but that, for me, is the point of a first draft. As you may know, I live by the maxim:

Don’t get it right, get it written (and then get it right).

And that’s the point of a first draft. Tell yourself a story and then perfect it. You can’t edit a blank page, so write something.

In this case, I have written nearly five chapters, but I shan’t tell you what’s happening, as that’s not the point of WIP Wednesdays. The point of this blog is to tell you how I am writing it, and to catch you up on any other news, books-wise or personal, and that, I shall do at the end.

Plotster/Pantster

When I first hear these two words, I had to scramble around to find out what they meant, and once I’d done that, they were obvious.

Plotster. Someone who plots a story before writing it.

Panster. Someone who makes it up as they go along.

I am a hybrid because I do both, but why ‘they’ don’t just use plotter and freestyle is beyond me.

In the case of ‘Agents’, as we will call the WIP, I needed facts at my fingertips because the story involved eight murders over 10 years, and some of the details were discussed in ‘Keepers of the Past’, therefore, I needed consistency. Along with those notes, I plotted a basic outline because there are to be two points of view; one MC remaining in Cornwall while the second MC heads to London, and I need a timeline so I know where and when everyone is. There is also a deadline and I have a date for that (October 31st 1890), so, I thought, I need to plan every day of the story.

Well, I don’t actually, because I can always go back and redate the chapters if I need to, as long as I am not relying on a factual event that took place on a specific date in 1890, and so far, I am not.

I am, however, usually more of a panster, and I am being one in the case of ‘Agents’ — to a certain degree. I have a timeline, I know how I want Act 1 to end, and I know what the middle-point twist is at the end of Act 2, what the crisis is at the end of Act 3 and what the climax is during Act 4, but I haven’t yet thought of the details. Much of that will come from the characters as I put them together and let them lead while using their own reasoning. Example: I might think it best that characters A and B do this… But, when the dialogue and action are flowing, one of them may come up with another idea and they end up doing that

That’s happened to me before. I get so into a scene, I let it run away from me, but I keep typing and let the characters talk and interact, and usually, I end up with a twist or turn I’d not thought of. I know it still comes from me, but when you free yourself from the plotster stricture, you can do more inventive things.

And that’s where I am right now with ‘Agents’, banging through draft one, and currently at… [does a quick check] …11,160 words. Oh, that’s not bad, actually. I usually aim for the first act to end around 25,000 words, so I am nearly halfway through the first quarter of the book.

I’ll chat about the four-act structure another time. For now, here’s some random book and home news.

See below

Book and Home

In the book department, ‘Keepers of the Past’ shot to #6 in Amazon’s LGBTQ/Historical ranking within a couple of days of release. I now have three titles in the top 100, and that’s great news.

Symi yesterday morning

Meanwhile, at home, I’ve started taking myself off for a couple of miles walking in the morning. This is after I’ve done a little freelance work, and before I sit down to do chatty blogs and write chapters. I like to go as soon as it’s light, and before I get stuck into creative writing, because then I have the rest of my day free. I usually take the same route, but I’ll post the odd photo now and then so you can see what I am looking at while I walk and plot the next chapter. Talking of which…

Back to work.

See you on Saturday for my next blog post.

The Magic Number Nine

The Magic Number Nine

Last week, I promised I would show you part of ‘Keepers of the Past’ which I cut from the book. (More details of how the book is going are at the end of this post.) The cut section is below in its raw form, before I made any corrections or edits. The book, of course, will be laid out properly. I can’t get WordPress to do indents and things, so, sorry about the layout.

Keepers of the Past: Extract

The scene. Joe is intrigued by the mysterious standing stones and stone circles he has been visiting on Bodmin Moor. Many of them have nine stones, and he has uncovered more coincidences involving the numbers nine and eighteen. These have led him to believe that a friend’s cousin is in trouble. Joe is deaf, so Dalston is interpreting for him. Frank is at the academy because he has an unusual talent for mathematics (and tailoring, but otherwise, he’s uneducated and he swears a lot, be warned).

Joe, Dalston and Frank are in the study where there is a chalkboard. Joe has asked him to explain why nine is considered a magic number.


‘Look here,’ Frank said, taking the chalk from Joe and shoeing him away. ‘This is what I can tell you about the sodding number nine, right? Sit down, pay attention and you’ll be fucking amazed.’
Joe did as instructed, sitting forward in the armchair, his chin on his fists, and his eyes flitting between Dalston’s fingers and Frank writing on the board.
‘The number nine is special,’ Frank began. ‘Dalston, what’s two nines?’
‘Eighteen.’
‘Right. What’s three?’
Dalston started counting on his fingers.
‘Nah, you don’t have to do that,’ Frank interrupted and held up his hands. ‘Look, Joe. You want to know what three nines make?’
‘Twenty seven.’
‘Yeah, alright, so you’re a bloody genius. Look.’ Frank bent the middle finger of his left hand. ‘Take down number three, and you’re left with what? Two on one side and seven on the other. Twenty seven.’ Doing the same with the next finger, he said, ‘Take down number four, you’re left with three and six, and that ain’t the price of me fucking hat. It’s what four nines make. Do it with your little finger, Dalston.’
Dalston did, and realised he was left with four fingers on one hand and five on the other.
‘Right, forty five. So it goes on up to ten.’ Frank bent the thumb of his right hand, leaving nine fingers in a row. ‘Ninety.’
‘So, you’ve got a trick to remember your nine times table,’ Dalston said with a smirk. ‘Not exactly genius material, mate. What’s your point?’
‘Want to see another bit of magic, Joe?’
Joe was enthralled, bending his fingers and marvelling at the results.
‘Joe?’ Frank waved in his sightline. ‘Watch this.’
Back at the board, he wrote a list of numbers.

9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90.

‘That’s your nine times table up to ninety, right? Notice anything about it?’ When neither Joe nor Dalston could answer, he added a zero before the first nine. ‘Now? No? Bloody hell…’ Frank sighed and drew a vertical line. ‘If I stuck a mirror between the two fives… between forty-five and fifty-four right there, you’d get the same sequence of numbers going forwards as you would going back. The last five numbers are a mirror bleeding image of the first. Get it?’
‘Yes. So?’
‘It only happens with nine,’ Frank said. ‘That’s why they call nine a magic number. Do it with your three or your seven, five, whatever, you won’t get the same mirror image. And there’s something else. Give us a number with nine in it, Joe. Any one with two digits, that’s two…’
‘I-o,’ Joe interrupted, and signed nine and six.
Frank wrote them on the board, 96, said, ‘Here’s another bit of magic for you,’ and beside it, wrote 69. ‘Take any two-digit number involving nine, reverse it, and take one away from the other… Ninety six minus sixty nine, we get seventy two. Seven plus two makes nine.’
‘Yeah?’ Dalston said, thinking that was just another coincidence. ‘What about forty-nine take away ninety-four? You can’t do that.’
”Course you can.’Frank wrote on the board.

49 minus 94 = -45
4 + 5 = 9

‘Just have to go to the left of zero and into minus. It works there too, see? Anyhow, me point is, Joe, the number nine is a weird one. Oh, hang on, there’s something else.’
More scratching on the board, the shrill squeal of chalk, and a few swearwords later, Frank had produced another list.
‘Joe. We got nine, and we got eighteen.’ He pointed to the numbers as he spoke. ‘One and eight is nine like you say. Then, we got twenty-seven. Two and seven make?’
‘Nine.’
‘Correct. Three and six? Nine. Four and Five? Nine, and so on.’
‘I never thought of that,’ Dalston said, doubt now turning to intrigue.
‘That’s ‘cos you ain’t the fucking mathematical genius, ain’t it,’ Frank tutted. ‘Give us a number. Any number.’
Dalston faltered, scrambling for something that wasn’t written on the board. ‘Seventy six.’
Frank wrote it, and turned to Joe.
‘How old are you, Joe?’
‘Nineteen.’
Frank wrote that on the board, and asked Dalston for another number; a higher one.
‘One hundred and sixty-two,’ came out of his mouth for no reason.
‘And I’m going to write this, ‘cos it’s the year.’
There were now four numbers on the board. 76, 19, 162 and 1890.
Frank stood to the side, reminding Dalston of a schoolteacher, except the ones he’d known were older than twenty and didn’t swear so much.
‘Dalston,’ Frank said, making him sit up straight and expect a telling off. ‘What’s nine times seventy-six?’
‘How the fuck would I know?’
‘Bloody hell,’ Frank muttered, and chalked up the answer. ‘Seventy-six times nine is six hundred and eighty-four.’ He’d worked it out in a heartbeat, and Dalston could only assume he was correct. ‘And the others…’
A few seconds passed, and the chalkboard was now a confusing mess of numbers that blurred Dalston’s vision.

76 x 9 = 684
19 x 9 = 171
162 x 9 = 1,458
1890 x 9 = 17,010

‘Do you see where I’m leading you with this?’
Dalston interpreted the question to Joe, and they stared at each other for a second before Joe made the sign for lunatic.
Laughing, Dalston said, ‘No, Frank, we ain’t got a clue. What are you trying to say?’
‘Ain’t it obvious?’
‘No.’
‘Right! Look here, seventy-six times nine makes six hundred and eighty-four, right?’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’
‘Good, ‘cos I ain’t fucking lying. Add up six, eight and four and what do you get?’
Joe gasped and signed, ‘Eighteen.’
‘Correct. Add one and eight?’
‘Nine.’
‘And we’re back to the sodding start. Who wants to go next on this merry-go-round? Dalston, what’s one plus seven plus one?’
‘Nine.’
‘And if you add up the others, you’ll get to some division of nine. Always.’
‘Always?’
‘Yup.’
‘That’s incredible.’
‘No, it ain’t. It’s just how it works, and that, Joe, is another reason some people reckon the number nine is fucking magic. Gets me every time, I have to say. No matter what you multiply by nine, you can always add the individual numbers of the answer and keep going until you got one digit, and it’ll always be nine. One last random one to prove me point, then I’m getting another drink.’
A little more scratching on the board, and Frank finished his lecture with a large random number.

14,892 x 9 = 134,028
1 + 3 + 4 + 0 + 2 + 8 = 18
1 + 8 = 9

He signed his work, Frank Andino, and poured himself a healthy glass of brandy, saying, ‘If you want to know about all your number nine, Joe, then all I can tell you is that it’s a fucking weird one. No wonder they was writing it everywhere, putting up rocks and stuff, but I don’t see what it’s got to do with a bloke getting killed, nor young David’s cousin, neither.’


I cut most of this as I worked on later drafts. Why? Simply because there is too much explanation, and it is not all relevant to the plot. I realised that I’d put such a lengthy explanation in there because a) I thought it was fascinating, and b) in writing the scene, what I was doing was explaining it to myself. In the redraft, the interesting information is still there, but I summed it up in a couple of paragraphs. Although I have kept one or two of the examples, showing digits rather than words, there are fewer of them. This, I hope, will get the point across without confusing the reader, as the above first draft does.

Keepers of the Past: Update

As I write, I am doing my final read-through having completed the various drafts and used ProWritingAid to conduct a line edit. The final draft goes to my proofreader next week, and once it is back, I will have one last read before uploading it all to Amazon. I have the front cover and will reveal it soon. My designer is working on the full cover for the paperback, and I have two illustrations ready to use at the front of the book. Everything is in place, and, with luck, we’re looking at a release date towards the end of the first week of November. I’ll let you know.

Well, that’s it from me for this week. The summer season is winding down here on our Greek island, and we have swapped the fans for the heaters, and the summer wardrobe for the winter one, but the days are still warm, and the sun continues to shine. Have a good week, and I will be back next Saturday. Meanwhile, keep in touch through my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/jacksonmarshauthor

JM

Editing: Keepers of the Past

Editing: Keepers of the Past

I am now into my final edit of the second Larkspur mystery, ‘Keepers of the Past’, so I thought it would chat about my editing process.

First Draft

I work by the maxim, Don’t get it right, get it written (then get it right). When I embark on a first draft, I start at the beginning of the story and work through to the end. On some days, I know I’m not doing my best, but I write anyway, and on others, I fly through, marvelling at how wonderfully the story is telling itself. Later, when I reread the draft, I often discover that the slower days produced the better work, and when I thought I was doing well, I wasn’t. Still, the first draft is there, the story is told no matter how badly, and I have something to work with.

Second Draft

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that an author should seek to cut something like 10% of the first draft when working on the second. I seek to do this but don’t always find, and I don’t take it as a rule that must be obeyed. Sometimes, I find I end up with 10% more in a second draft, and that’s fine, as long as it’s a necessary and well-written 10%.

For me, the second draft is often a read-through of the first with an eye to consistency of story. Have I said something early on that doesn’t tie up later? Does a character’s eye colour accidentally change? Particularly important to me is the timeline, and because I use dates as chapter headings, I need to ensure these remain accurate. (They are accurate to the calendar from the year in which the story is set, and I check this with publications in the online newspaper archive because not all online date calculators are accurate.) Another thing to look out for is repetition. I often put some piece of vital information early in the story, and then repeat it later, which is unnecessary. What I’m doing is reminding myself to make sure the info is in there, because after putting it in chapter one, by the time I get to chapter ten, I can’t remember if I’ve written in it the story. Therefore, draft two is often about removing repetition. A reader should only need to read something once, and if I find myself saying aloud, ‘Yes, I know this,’ I delete it.

Third (or Fourth) Draft

Here’s where things get technical. I finally know the story and characters well enough, and have the plot, timeline, developments etc. in order, so they can now take care of themselves. What needs attention next is the grammar, and I do what people call a line edit. This is where you go through every single line of the text looking for mistakes. I’m not just talking about typos, I am always on the look out for them, but grammar, sentence construction and use of words. The question in my head at this stage is, Can I write this better? Which I would change to How can this be improved, if I was editing this blog post. (I would also add a question mark to the improvement. I put it that way to highlight how you should be aware of missing punctuation as much as everything else.)

I am currently on draft three of ‘Keepers of the Past’, and at the line edit stage. As an assistant, I use a plug-in to Word called ProWritingAid (PWA). I used to use Grammarly, but it messed with Word so much, I threw it out. PWA offers the writer plenty of suggestions on all kinds of things, and it can bog you down with so many, you end up over-editing. So, use it with care. I check through its reports for basic grammar, overused words, sentence length, clichés, and one they call ‘style’, because, among other things, it picks up on adverb use.

Another habit of mine when first drafting is to bung in an adverb when I can’t be bothered to explain something in a more literary way, and then forget to go back and change it. ‘I never use them in dialogue tags,’ he said sheepishly, because he has done, but only when unavoidable. When PWA tells me there are 17 adverbs in this chapter, and I gasp, I go through and eliminate as many as possible. Often, they are not needed. Here’s an example:

Someone had spent hours twisting and tightening, or it might have been done by a machine, but their labours had ultimately been in vain.

Ultimately been in vain? Why not just, been in vain? We know it happened in the past. I do, though, leave adverbs in speech, because that’s how people talk. Stephen King’s view on adverbs is they are lazy writing. It’s a case of show, not tell. ‘I am not!’ he said, angrily. That might be what you mean, and it’s a quick way of saying it, but, ‘I am not,’ he fumed, thumping the table with such force the crockery jumped’, lets the reader imagine so much more.

It also reminds me to mention exclamation marks! I hate them! I hate them more when they are overused!! I once read an autobiography by a film director known for making epic fantasy films. A brilliant screenwriter and director, but he didn’t employ a great editor. Every other line ended in an exclamation mark. I couldn’t believe it! We had the Money! Yes, okay, so you were excited, and one might forgive the dreaded ! after such an exclamation, but when the story continues with, So, we were off to the studio. There, we attended the auditions! Calm your enthusiasm, mate, that’s just unnecessary, as exclamation marks, in my opinion, often are.

Where was I? Oh, yes…

Overused Words

I have my next chapter open for editing and have run my PWA report, asking it to identify overused words. I always get a shock at this point, and here’s why. This is, verbatim, what the report says:

Overused Words Check
was/were. You have overused this word compared to published writing. Consider removing about 7 occurrences from 122.

One hundred and twenty-two uses of was/were!? The chapter only has 3,882 words in it – and never use exclamation and question marks together, btw. Nor abbreviations such as btw, unless you can justify doing so.
Overuse of was/were and had suggests not only lazy writing, but passive verb use and too much back-flashing. The report also highlighted 80 occurrences of had, and here’s more of the example text, pre-edit. (I have highlighted the overuse.)
Joe, my deaf character, is trying to make sense of some ancient symbols, one of which is a rope. While doing so, he reminisces about his time in the workhouse oakum shed, where his job was to unpick lengths of old rope.

As he worked, Joe often wondered who had put the ropes together. Someone had spent hours twisting and tightening, or it might have been done by a machine, but their labours had ultimately been in vain, and he wondered how they felt about that. The rope had done its job, it had held sails, secured vast ships to dockyard bollards, or perhaps tied down tea chests as the ship braved the distant oceans. He wondered what the rope had seen, what it would know, and tried to imagine life aboard a ship…

I’ve not edited this chapter yet, but when I do, I might rewrite the section thus:

As he worked, Joe often wondered who first put the ropes together. Someone spent hours twisting and tightening the threads, but in the end, their labours came to nothing, and he wondered how they would feel if they knew. The rope played its part, fastened sails, secured vast ships to dockyards, or kept cargo safe as the ship braved the wild oceans. He wondered where the rope had sailed and tried to imagine life aboard a ship…

Slightly better, and it might read as odd, because, here, it is out of context. It was an example of how easy it is to overuse certain words. Others to watch for include could, feel, know and see in their various forms (felt, knew, knowing, saw, seen, etc.)

The point of this section was to point out how finickity it can be to improve a manuscript, but how much better the finished work will be because of it. The danger, however, is over-editing. Being too nit-picky, you can ruin a sentence, paragraph or entire chapter by fiddling with it too much. It’s possible to lose the sense of the writing, the feel and the style, so you must watch out for that. Using PWA along with my own decisions, it can take me two hours to get through 4,000 words. ‘Keepers of the Past’ ran to 105,000 words in the first draft, so that means the line edit will take me about 26 hours. (Perhaps I should take it up as a profession and offer my services?)

While all that is going on in my office, my husband is in the sitting room reading through the first draft. His job, which he does willingly and for free, is to make sure the story makes sense, to point out any obvious repetition, and anything he thinks is unnecessary. Only yesterday he came to me to say most of one chapter was not needed, and unlike the rest of the book, he didn’t enjoy it. I suspected that would happen, because when I wrote it, I thought, ‘I like this part, but is it necessary?’ He gave me the answer I knew I should have found for myself, and the lesson there is, when editing, always trust your instincts.

Or, as our family doctor used to say, ‘If in doubt, whip it out.’ If you have read the Clearwater series, you won’t be surprised to know our family doctor was called Dr Markland.

After Editing?

After I have done my content, structure and line editing, I send the MS to be proofread by a professional proofreader. I am lucky enough to have discovered the editor and proofreader Ann Attwood, and highly recommend her services for being reliable, honest and knowledgeable.

Once back from proofing, the MS goes through another read to check the proofs, of course, but also, by then, I’ve had some distance from it, so I can take a fresh look. From then on, the novel is on its own and out there in the big wide world, and I can cut along to the next one and start the process all over again.

Next Week’s Blog

I intended to give you the first draft of the unnecessary chapter, pre-editing, so you can see what the fuss was all about. Part of ‘Keepers of the Past’ has to do with the mystical number nine, and the cut chapter delves into numerology and the strange way in which the number nine works. I found it so fascinating, I wrote a whole chapter about it, where foul-mouthed Frank takes us through its mystery. Totally not needed (apart from containing a plot point which I can easily move), it’s now in the cuts folder, but I will share it with you next week.

Until then, keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.

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Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: Character Intros and Outros.

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: Character Intros and Outros.

‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.’ Lyrics from a song by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields for their musical, ‘Seesaw’ are the inspiration for my blog post today. It’s all about openings and closings and in particular, how you introduce a character and how you say goodbye to them. Or, put another way, how the reader first meets them and the reader’s last sight of them before closing the book.

Why is this important? Because first impressions count, and a parting impression lasts. How to write screenplays books talk about the importance of a viewer’s first sight of a character, how, for example, you may see his/her back view first, and then he/she will slowly turn to the camera and give a sultry look, or how your first sight of the macho hero might be him jumping from a helicopter while firing a gun, blah, blah. It makes an impression, and the same works in a novel, only with more subtlety.

What can a Character Intro Say?

A great deal. Considering how you introduce a character is important because it’s an opportunity to show many things in a memorable moment. You can tell/show a reader so much about your character from a few lines, and here’s an example taken from the first two chapters of ‘Deviant Desire.’

Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.

Those are the opening lines of the series (without the prequel). They not only tell us Silas was destitute, but that he was in the East End and willing to search gutters for money. We also, hopefully, want to know why, who the other man is, and how is Silas’ fate being sealed.

Turn to chapter two and we meet Archer (Lord Clearwater), for the first time in an entirely different way.

Logs crackled in the iron grate, sending sparks heavenwards and waves of warmth across a sea of Turkish rugs. The fire-glow washed up on the slippered feet of the newly elevated Viscount Clearwater. Archer Riddington, a man in his late twenties, was seemingly drowning in the depths of a sumptuous wingback chair. His hands were draped over the worn armrest where his fingers undulated like kelp in a current as he pondered what to say next.

Warmth, Turkish rugs, comfort, riches… A contrast to the first chapter, Archer’s intro sets up the world of above stairs and below, rich and poor, that is the background to the time of the novel, and the 1800s. It also gives us his two names, but that’s another matter.

And as for Andrej, aka Fecker, I think he has one of my favourite intros.

Silas had deliberated at this window so often that some good had come of his indecision. That good appeared beside him, bringing the smell of apples and the reflection of a tall man of similar age.
‘Privet, Banyak,’ he said in his native tongue.
‘Evening, Fecks.’ Silas acknowledged his mate’s reflection with a nod towards a marble angel.

I like it because the image I have after reading it is of Fecker as a statue with angel wings because his reflection is superimposed over the statue inside the undertaker’s shop. Fecks turns out to be strong, gentle, kind and handsome, and I wanted him to appear in a slightly mysterious way.

Intros don’t apply only to main characters. Even when minor characters appear in your story, you should still consider how they make a first impression. This doesn’t mean writing a backstory or physical description in great detail, or even giving them a name (although names help readers establish an image of a character). It’s more to do with how you place them. Example: in ‘Deviant Desire’, when we meet Molly, the woman who runs the rope house where Silas and Andrej stay, she’s sitting at a desk, smells of piss and gin, and although she’s drunk, she guards her little empire like a hound. A short meeting such as that can tell the reader enough for the character to feel real, even though Molly’s not on stage for much of the time.

Saying Goodbye in an Outro.

The word outro usually applies to music, but I use it to describe that last time we see a character, major or minor. Even if the character is coming back in the next book of a series, the way he/she leaves the reader of the current story is important.

In my mystery thriller, ‘The Saddling’ (written as James Collins), I conclude the story with Tom, Barry and Dan, because they are the mainstays of the series. Tom’s the MC, Dan the ‘impact character’, and Barry the sidekick who, later, becomes so much more. They are last seen through the eyes of Dan’s mother…

Whiteback flocks moved lazily out of their path as the boys strolled over the tufted fields. They talked freely and made plans along the reeded deek, startling yellow finches into flight. They crossed the bridge where the mother trees watched over them, new leaves reflecting in the glass-flat water. A hernshaw raised its broad wings, both greeting and applauding as a murder of crows fled before them in panicked protest. They pushed each other, laughing, debated the future, and forgot the past. With arms around each other’s shoulders, they finally talked themselves into silence.
They walked on into the distance until they were nothing more than brushstrokes on nature’s vast canvas, and the sheep returned to graze.

Three outros in one, and, I hope, vanishing into a pastoral scene of tranquillity after a frenetic action climax.

In ‘The Judas Inheritance’, a horror/thriller I wrote that was made into a film, our last sight of the main character sees him falling into the pit of hell. In ‘Lonely House’, another horror/thriller of mine, the two MCs are last scene together in a stance that suggests something more is about to happen between them, and in my gay/straight body-swap comedy, ‘Remotely’, the two MCs leave the stage together, and one of them puts out the lights.

Those examples (all by James Collins) might sound like ‘how to finish your story’ rather than how to say goodbye to your characters, but often, they are the same thing. Often, but not always. At the end of ‘Deviant Desire’, we close on the good guys at Clearwater House but then follow the bad guy through the streets as he plots his revenge, and we know we haven’t seen the last of him.

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

The point of today’s writing thought was to think about how characters first appear and last appear, and it’s one of those tricks of the trade that comes to you with practice and experience. Having said that, I’m sure most intuitive writers are subconsciously aware of how they introduce their players, but a reminder is always useful. In the heavily structured world of screenplay writing, writers often have a sheet per character which lists the usual things such as name, profession, character traits and so on, but which also has a couple of boxes to be filled, titled ‘Most likely to say’, ‘Intro’ and ‘Outro.’ I used this technique in a couple of screenplays, and I have similar notes written in whatever notebook I am using for my current project.

Setting your characters in a place that helps define the character is useful. Having them speak in a certain way is too, but so is knowing the kind of thing they’re likely to say and, even better, having them open with such a line really defines them for the first-time reader or viewer. Again, I must quote from my own work, and in this case the Clearwater prequel, ‘Banyak & Fecks’ where we again meet Silas for the first time (it depends if you read this book before ‘Deviant Desire’).

A stick of rags waited, slouched against the end of the pew where penitents were expected to sit respectfully, his arms folded as he gaped at the vaulted ceiling. On hearing the swish of the curtain rings, the lad looked down, and on seeing the priest, shook his head to rid it of an uncontrollable yawn. Unsuccessful, he could only pull a twisted smile and wave a hand as an instruction for the priest to wait, before moaning out the last of the yawn and lodging a complaint against it by saying, ‘Fecking hell.’


That’s enough ramble from me. In other news…

I am working on draft two of the next Larkspur Mystery, ‘Keepers of the Past.’ I’ve not heard back from my cover designer yet, but I hope to have some rough drafts during this week. I need to write the blurb, contact Ann about a date for proofing and, of course, make the book as good as I can. On that note, I shall make my outro and bid you a healthy week to come.

JM

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James Collins author page at Amazon
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Keepers of the Past

Keepers of the Past

The Larkspur Mysteries book two has its title, ‘Keepers of the Past.’ I am now nearing the end of the first draft and have one and a half chapters left to go. I am getting back to them as soon as I finish this brief update. We were invited to a wedding which took up a few days at the end of the week, hence this post coming on Sunday, not Saturday, but now there is little in my diary to interrupt a return to full steam ahead.

I may have said before, but one reason ‘Keepers’ feels like it’s taken me a long time to first draft is because of the research, which has included reading about standing stones, ancient history, and finding genuine accounts of missing people from the newspaper archives. Another reason is because this is the first book since ‘Deviant Desire’ that doesn’t include a familiar cast of characters.

‘Guardians of the Poor’, book one in the new series, is a handover novel. It acted as a way of joining the Clearwater cast to the new Larkspur world. With ‘Guardians’, I had Clearwater, James, Silas and others to fall back on, and as they arrived already created, they were easy to manoeuvre into the story. With ‘Keepers’, I’ve had to do a lot more work on Joe Tanner and Dalston. Fleet has more to do in this story, Clem and Frank, too, because most of the story is set at Academy House. Lord Clearwater is away, and although Thomas, Fecker and Barnett make appearances (as does Jasper, briefly), most of the characters in the story are new to us. Clearwater is about to make his appearance in the final chapter, so I should be back on familiar ground by the end of today’s writing session.

I’ve opened a dialogue with Andjela about the cover, and I have had ‘Dazzling’ my illustrator draw a couple of illustrations to insert at the front of the book. She has produced two drawings, one of which I’ll show you here. The other, you will have to wait for, but it’s not a portrait as we had in book one. The illustration is below.

There are two mysteries in ‘Keepers’, but they collide. In brief, Joe Tanner is tasked by Lord Clearwater to research the history and meaning of symbols carved into two standing stones on his estate. As Joe, who is deaf and uses sign language, sets about doing this, a relative of Joe’s new friend, David, the younger groom, is due to arrive from America but has gone missing. While working on the stones, Joe uncovers news of similar disappearances, and wonders if they might have something to do with the carvings. Thus, one mystery is connected to the other, and, being me, an action climax is guaranteed.

I shan’t say more today, because I am keen to return to chapter 28, which I have left unfinished, and then on to chapter 29, the final chapter, and then… Then I start all over again with draft two. I’ll leave you with Dazzling’s drawing of two sides of one of the standing stones. This made an appearance in ‘Guardians’ you may remember, and yes, the ’rounded arrow’ is meant to look like a…

The Larkspur Mysteries Book Two

The Larkspur Mysteries Book Two

I have to admit, this Larkspur Mysteries Two is taking me some time to draft. There are a few reasons for this.

Standing Stones

The book is taking a fair amount of research. It’s one of those stories that I want to make as accurate as possible, yet be able to bend the facts to suit. It’s set in an actual place, Bodmin Moor in England, and includes references to real places, in this case, standing stone circles and other ancient monuments. However, they’re not all in the places I want them to be, so I have ‘fiddled’ with a couple, and invented a couple of my own. Researching where they are, and how they can provide clues to the mystery, is taking time, as is the background reading about such stones and their place in history.

Writing Deaf

Another thing that is causing me to write slowly is getting to grips with the character of Joe Tanner, my deaf leading man. It’s not just a case of being careful not to write, ‘he said,’ but to use ‘he signed’ instead, and there are many other factors to consider from a technical point of view. For example: I have a scene where Joe is out on the moor, the weather is foul, and a thunderstorm is coming in. The scene is from Joe’s point of view, so I cannot describe any sounds. Therefore, we, the reader, have to feel the thunder. I have to create the atmosphere with one sense missing, sound, because Joe doesn’t know what sound is. That’s proving to be interesting to write, and his deafness has a knock-on effect on other characters.

Dalston, his lover, knows how to sign, and Joe can read lips if people speak clearly, but until now, if Joe wanted to communicate with another character, he had to have Dalston there to interpret. He uses the written word, of course, and has improved his writing under Fleet’s guidance, and he can read. Some of the other characters have been having lessons in sign with varying degrees of success, so I have found a way around that issue.

The OS map is permanently open on my desk these days

How does a man deaf since birth read? Joe doesn’t hear the words in his head. He can’t. He’s never heard them out of his head, so, instead, he uses images. He visualises what he’s reading if you like, but as he is currently reading books about ancient standing stones, and he’s never seen half of what he is reading about (long barrows, menhirs, cists etc.), Fleet has been offering him illustrations to assist.

Joe is the MC in this story, a spotlight he shares with Dalston, and I’m really enjoying the challenge. By the way, Neil and I have now both passed our course in basic British Sign Language (BSL), and intend to keep it going between us, for practice, add more words and phrases to our arsenal, and, hopefully, improve.

Complicated Plot

You know me, I like to make my mysteries challenging for the characters and thus, the reader, and yet aim for a satisfying denouement. Well, this one is not only complicated by Joe’s deafness and a shift in his relationship with Dalston, but also by the subject matter.

My very dodgy sketch of the symbols that play a big part in the story

It’s actually a simple challenge. Lord Clearwater wants to know the story of the ancient monoliths that stand within his property boundary. What were they for? Why is there one embedded in the walls of the ruined abbey? And what do the symbols mean? Carved stones are rare in Cornwall, it’s more of a Pictish thing, apparently, and yet, one of the standing stones has carvings on it. Lord Clearwater’s mystery is only one thread, however, there is another far more sinister but also historic, and that, Joe stumbles upon while researching the stone row. I won’t say too much more about that, because I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but suffice to say, there is also a deadline, there will be an ‘action climax’ when I get to it (I am nearly there), and, hopefully, everything will tie up and make sense. Right now, I am reaching the part in the story where clues are coming together and, for the sake of accuracy, I am having to go back and forth between the written chapters to ensure the clues laid down early on, tie-up with the untangling of the plot at the crisis point.

And then there are visitors.

At this time of year, we have many regular visitors returning to the island where we live. Neil works in a bar, and it’s very popular with British visitors who like to come and say hello and catch up on island news. In the winter months, I’m a ‘bed at nine’ kind of person and am often up at three or four in the morning to start work. Right now, though, we are being taken out to dinner, and we’re entertaining at home sometimes, and that means later nights, and thus, later mornings. My writing time is compressed somewhat, as is my energy. Not complaining, it’s a very sociable time of year and makes up for the seven months of winter when we hardly see anyone, but I am more tired than usual, so I am working slower.

Recent early morning view from the balcony

But I am still ploughing through draft one of Larkspur two. I am up to 85,000 words, with probably another 25,000 to go, and I am aiming to have the draft finished in the next two weeks. After that, there will be the second and third draft, the cover to commission, and so on, and of course, the title to find. That’s yet to fall into place, but it will before long. In the meantime, I have commissioned my illustrator to produce a much better version of my sketch of the standing stones, and I am expecting a miraculous drawing or two to come through within the next week or so. I’ll post it on a future blog when it does.

I’ll be back next week with more author chat, but for now, it’s back to the mystery…

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What’s in a Title?

What’s in a Title?

I am currently working on the first draft of the second Larkspur Mystery, and I’ve still not landed on a title. Titles usually come to me easily, but not this time. So, I thought, today, I would chat about some of my titles, explain where they came from and perhaps, that will give me inspiration for Larkspur Two, as it’s currently called.

Early Titles

Years ago, when I was young and everything was in black and white, I wrote a story. I was unemployed waiting for a new job to start, but the start date was delayed, and I had three months sitting around in a garret room (honestly) with very little money, so I sat and wrote all day, in longhand. It was a simple story about a young man running away from home and discovering London, falling for another young man who turned out to be a rent boy, and the friendship and eventual love affair that ensued. Towards the end, the pair went to Kent, had the best time of their lives, then came home, and a tragedy happened. I called that story ‘In From the Garden’.

Why?

No idea, really. It just felt right, but later, I realised that the two MCs had in fact come back from the garden of England, as the county of Kent is known, so maybe it came from there.

Gay erotic romanceSimilarly, the title of my first published book just came to me, and because I liked the phrase, I kept it. ‘Other People’s Dreams’ is about a rich man hiring four young, cute gay guys to crew his boat around the Greek islands. The job comes with a generous package of benefits and pay, but there are ‘certain strings attached.’

The inspiration for the story came to me when I was sitting on a beach here on Symi. I was on holiday here then, on my own, and was watching a yacht coming into the otherwise deserted bay. As it came close, I saw the crew were taking down the sails, and then I noticed they were all naked, and they were all men. ‘That’s someone’s dream,’ I thought, and suddenly, I not only had an idea for a story but also its title. That boat and the boys aboard were someone else’s dream. Simple.

The Mentor Series

Setting about a series of books that took older/younger and coming out as the key themes, I thought up another story that was mainly based around sex. This was another person’s dream, that of Camden, the MC, who is hired to mentor four younger gay men in a deserted house. His role is to help them develop their writing and personal skills, and overcome sexual inhibitions. I wanted the location of the story to be somewhere out of the way, and the title to reflect this, and that’s how I came up with The Mentor of Wildhill Farm.

Then, I thought, I’ll write a second one in the non-related series. (They are similar in theme, older/younger, coming out etc., but not with the same characters.) I knew it had to be The Mentor of… something and realised I had three words to come up with. One describes the atmosphere (wild), the second is a geographical feature (hill), and the third is the location of the story (farm). So, I made a list of suitable adjectives and locations.

  1. Remote, barren, lost, alone, distant, private…
  2. City, village, moor, wood, forest, marsh…
  3. House, estate, hall, ridge, castle, abbey…

From that brainstorming exercise, I came up with three titles for three more Mentor books, the Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge (I wanted to convey a barren landscape and rock climbing), of Lostwood Hall, and of Lonemarsh House. Each first part of the location reflects the younger man/men of the stories; wild, lost, alone, abandoned.

I was rather pleased with the subtlety, but I didn’t plan it.

Deviant Desire

What was more planned, and what took longer to arrive at, were the titles of the Clearwater novels, and of all of them, Deviant Desire took the longest to drop into place.

I think it started out as ‘Deviant Gaslight’ or something equally bizarre. I wanted to convey the Victorian era, shadows and deviancy, but then I wondered how the light from a gas lamp could be deviant. I sifted through all kinds of ideas as I was writing it because titles often come to me during the first draft. I must have entertained Dark Shadows, and then remembered it was a TV series, and how can shadows be light? I have my notes beside me, and in them, I see I also considered Deviant Lamplight, which was its title at the end of draft one. The word ‘deviant’ was clearly important, and as I went through the second draft, I asked myself what and who was I talking about? Silas was deviant (any gay man then was considered deviant), and he had a desire for sex, later for Clearwater, and their love would have been called a deviant desire, so that made sense. But the villain also had a desire for revenge and a desire to kill, and that, of course, is also deviant. By the end of draft two, I’d settled on ‘Deviant Desire’, and I am pleased to say, it is my best-selling novel to date.

Like the Mentor titles, the Clearwater series started out with a formula. In this case, an adjective and a noun, and I wanted all the forthcoming titles to have an adjective on the same theme as ‘deviant.’ I have a list somewhere, cribbed from a thesaurus or two, and from that list I came up with the words which best suited the story.

Twisted Tracks refers to the deviancy of both hero and villain, the laying of a tempting trail into a trap, and the climax which happens on a moving train.

Unspeakable Acts was a gift because I wanted a story set around a theatre, and chose the Royal Opera House, where not only were entertainment acts performing, but where the star couldn’t speak what he’d been ordered to speak by the villain. The villains were also involved in what Victorians called ‘unspeakable acts’, i.e. gay sex, and the Cleaver Street brothel. (Based on the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889.)

Fallen Splendour came about because I wanted to base the mystery around a poem used as a coded message. One of my favourites is ‘The Splendour Falls’, an insert into a longer poem by Tennyson. He was alive at the time the story is set, so I dragged him into the story too. I liked the word ‘fallen’ because its reference to ‘fallen women’, as they were known then. Silas is a ‘fallen man’, you might say, and if the truth about Clearwater was known, he too would ‘fall’ from grace.

And so it went on.

Bitter Bloodline is about an ancient, bitter feud and Bram Stoker (in my world, then working on the beginnings of Dracula). Bitter also refers to the taste of a certain wine from the region of Transylvania, which plays a part in the story.

Artful Deception revolves around a piece of art and also refers to the way the characters outwit each other with theatrical devices.

From then on, the titles change. Things had happened in the series, and issues were resolved (no spoilers, but if you have read them, you might remember who has left the stories by then), and so, I was freer to play with the titles.

Home From Nowhere came to me during the writing and still gives me the same chill when I read the title as I felt when I wrote a short scene between Jasper and Andrej (Fecker). Fecks asks where Jasper is from, and Jasper tells him his background.

‘You come from everywhere,’ Mr Andrej said. ‘But you come from nowhere. Like me.’

That led to the title, and I wanted to use it at the very end of the story. However, watch out for doing this because it is such a cliché. It’s as much a cliché as characters in film repeating themselves for emphasis. ‘I know, son…(beat)…I know.’ Eek! Cringe, don’t do it. Similarly, finishing a novel with its title gives me the same creeps, so I changed it slightly for Jasper’s final speech.

‘I feel like I’ve been nowhere all my life, but now I’ve come home.’

Bless Jasper. He and Billy are each one half of a pair, and that’s how One Of A Pair came about. There is another play on words in there, and you will understand when you read the book.

At this point in these reis, I sidestepped to go backwards and explore how Silas and Fecker met. I reckoned a clever title wouldn’t be right, so I went for the simple Banyak & Fecks, their nicknames for each other. The title gave me the structure of the book. The nicknames come about during the story, but they are not the characters’ original names. Thus, the first quarter of the book is titled ‘Andrej’, the second, ‘Silas’, the third, ‘Andrej and Silas’, and it’s not until we come to the last quarter we get them fully-fledged as ‘Banyak & Fecks’. By then, they have become an inseparable pair, forever locked in a bromance, avoiding the Rippe’s knife and unknowingly about to step into Deviant Desire as two of the main characters.

In book nine of the series (not counting the prequel), I returned to the formula of the start of the series with Negative Exposure. The title refers to several aspects of the story; photography, posing naked, the risk of being found out… And in book ten, the only one without a figure on the cover, I couldn’t think of anything better than The Clearwater Inheritance. That was because it reflects not only to the main plot, the inheritance but also suggests something is coming after, and that something is the Larkspur Mysteries.

The Stoker ConnectionYou know, I’ve waffled enough for now, and still haven’t explained the Stoker Connection, The Blake Inheritance or Curious Moonlight, but I hope, by now, you’ve had an insight into how I come up with my tittles.

Except, it seems, for Larkspur Two.

Standing stones, ancient symbols, disappearances, a deaf main character, the wilds of Cornwall… There has to be something in there. I’ve just not got it yet.

Oh… By writing this, the word ‘signs’ has dropped into my head as a frontrunner, but Signs what or what Signs…? This is how my mind works, and I’ll leave you while it hopefully works some more, and I find the title. I am up to 80,000 words in the first draft, and I’ll tell you more about it soon. For now, I’m off.

Have a good week.

Jackson

You can find all my titles on the Jackson Marsh author page on Amazon.

What Do I Call My Character?

What Do I Call My Character?

‘No One Can Take Away Your Name.’ So says a character in The Clearwater Inheritance, and it’s true. It also reminds us that when we create a character’s name, it becomes very difficult to change it, especially when writing a series. So, how do you get it correct from the start?

I saw a post in a Facebook writers’ group the other day where an author was asking for advice about naming her characters. She gave a brief outline of each one, and then asked, ‘What should I call them?’ A brief outline isn’t much to go on, so I briefly told her what I do when I need to name a character.

Below are my thoughts on the subject in greater detail, and some of the ways I go about naming characters.

It is important to ask yourself some questions.

When do your Characters Live?

I am currently writing in the 1880s and my stories are set in England. Recently, when working on ‘Guardians of the Poor’, I was inspired by a newspaper article from the time. Mentioned in it was a workhouse official named Edward Capps. I took his name and made him the master of the Hackney workhouse, partly to keep some realism, partly because I wanted a villain with a fairly ordinary, yet slightly odd name, and it is an easy one to read. His henchman in that story is called Skaggot, a far more Dickensian name, and one which reads like a cross between skag and maggot, neither of which are very nice words. Skag is slang for heroin and was in use in the 1880s, and we all know what we think of maggots.

It’s worth remembering that some names in common usage today did not exist in Victorian times, so it’s important to check what era you are writing in, and the name trends of the time. These days, we might find Christian names such as Brooklyn, Phoenix, Brighton and other places as that seem to be a trend. Similarly, names from popular TV shows crop up from time to time. For example, there was an influx of Charlenes and Scotts when Neighbours first became popular in the UK. If you look at censuses from the late 1800s you will find a wealth of Mary-Ann, Charlotte and Victoria, and James, Albert and William. Far more traditional.

What country is the character from?

In Greece, it’s traditional for a couple’s first son to take the name of his paternal grandfather. I am sure the same kind of tradition applies in other countries, and in classes of British society. Sometimes, a mother’s maiden name is used, or a grandmother’s or a more distant relative. One of my brothers is named after a great-great-uncle, my other brother has among his names one of my father’s names, Clayre, which is an unusual name, and none of us knows where it came from.

I have written characters from Ireland, so I needed Irish names, and these can be very different from English names. Some are the same or very similar, for example, I have a character named Karan, and that’s the Irish spelling of Karen, so details are important to bear in mind. Ditto characters from Scotland, Ukraine and Transylvania, and others who appear in the Clearwater Mysteries, have country-appropriate names. My Romanian count wouldn’t have been called Charlie Smith. He is Roman Movileşti from the House of Bogdanesti (or Musat) because he has a lineage dating back to 1392.

Names can also make excellent book titles

An aside. When writing ‘Deviant Desire’, the first of the Clearwater Mysteries, I introduced a character called ‘Fecker’. There’s more about that name below, but his real name is Andrej, and that’s all we know about his name to start with. Later in the story, he appears at Clearwater’s house and is introduced by the footman. I wanted to raise a slight smile among my readers, and so gave the footman the task of announcing Andrej with his full name. Therefore, the name had to be complicated, but appropriate, and I went for Andrej Borysko Yakiv Kolisnychenko. Admittedly, not easy to read, and he was soon known as Mr Andrej, but his name was important. If/when you read through the series, including ‘Banyak & Fecks’ and particularly, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance,’ you will come to see why Andrej has these names, and why they are so important to him. As his mentor says during one of the stories, ‘No one can take away your name.’

As well as considering the character’s country, you should consider his location. There are differences in Christian and surnames between someone who is East London poor and someone who is West London rich. You don’t want to use cliché though. Not every East End scallywag was called Charlie, Bert or Dodger, and not all barmaids are called Betsy, Maisy and Poll. Try and be inventive, and one way to do that is to use nicknames. More about that in a moment.

How old is your character?

As I said, names, like clothes, come and go in fashion. Remember that your character may be 60 now, but when he was born, there may have been a different trend for names. When I was popped out, Toby was hip but unusual, these days, it’s more common.

You have to think, ‘Who were the parents, and what would they have called him/her?’ This gives you character background and some backstory, and a name can say a great deal about a character’s ancestors and parents. Think of the trends at the time and what was popular. Such things can include, the TV programmes of the time, pop singers, royalty, politicians, explorers, anyone hitting the newspapers in your country at the time of your character’s birth.

Parents, after all, are the ones who do the naming.

Take my main player in The Clearwater Mysteries: Archer Camoys Riddington, 19th Viscount Clearwater, Lord Baradan of Hapsburg-Bran, Honorary Boyar Musat-Rashnov, to give him his full set of names and titles. Obviously, I don’t refer to him by all of them all the time. The official announcements happen only two or three times during 11 books, and most of the time he is known as Archer, Archie, Your Lordship or Lord Clearwater. It depends on the status between characters. Titled friends would call him Clearwater, servants, My Lord, his lover, Archie, and so on.

Archer was named by his father, a hideously military man, who was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt. Archer’s brother is called Crispin as the battle was fought on that day, and Archer is named after the longbowmen who were responsible for the victory. He’s also got Camoys as a name because he was one of the commanding officers.

So, think ‘Who named this character’ bascule you can be sure it wasn’t you.

Fantasy names

Having said that, you do name your characters, and none of the above thoughts may apply if you’re writing fantasy. There, you can be extra-creative, but be careful. Make sure your names are easy to read. Marthigglysistbour from the planet Zyghrthithril ain’t that easy to visually digest. I am immediately put off a book if the title has in it a difficult-to-read name. The Kronghstyz Series of Sci-Fi fantasies might fill its author with pride, but for me, it would get me scrolling past.

Names to suit characters

This is one of my faves. I love checking out what names mean or thinking about why characters are called what they are. I do this a lot, sometimes just to amuse myself with obscure references and meanings, sometimes because it suits the story.

Jasper Blackwood

This morning, I wrote a newspaper article from 1882, and in it, mentioned a local policeman. ‘It seems to me the man were murdered,’ Inspector Trawlish of the Cornish Constabulary said. The name came out of my fingers rather than my head, but I wanted something vaguely Cornish-sounding and thought of fishing. Trawler would have been too obvious for a detective, but Trawl-ish sounds like he’s not very accurate in his work, so I went with that. Later, I also had a tea rooms owner and she popped out as Mrs Killraddock. I don’t know why. Probably because it also sounds Cornish (and the story is set there in 1890), but looking at it again, I imagine Mrs Killraddock being not very good at cooking kippers. ‘Don’t ask her to make breakfast, she’ll kill yer ‘addock.’

Meanwhile… In The Clearwater Mysteries, Silas Hawkins is named after the priest who delivered him and slapped him into life, Father Patrick. However, Silas’ mother wanted the Priest’s name before he was ordained, and that was Silas. To have called him Patrick O’Anything Irish-sounding would have been a cliché.

Thomas Arthur Payne

Thomas Payne is named because he is from a part of Kent I know well and there, there live a large collection of families called Payne. Simple. It also provided me with a play on words when Tom Payne and James Wright become involved in the detective agency. They were going to call it ‘The Wright-Payne Detective Agency’ until Silas pointed out another meaning.

If you want to find the best examples of names suiting characters, you only have to read Dickens. He was a master of characterisation through naming as you can see with Uriah Heap, Mr Bumble, Uncle Pumblechook, and who can forget Dick Swiveller from The Old Curiosity Shop? Come to that, what about Master Bates (Charlie), one of the boys from Oliver Twist?

We’ll say no more, and move on.

Nicknames

I like to give my characters nicknames for two reasons.
1) It’s what happens in real life, and
2) They can help define characters and relationships.

In the Clearwater Mysteries, Silas calls Andrej, ‘Fecker’ because, in Silas’ Irish accent, ‘He’s a very handsome Fecker.’ The name stuck. Similarly, Fecker, shortened to Fecks, calls Silas Banyak. In the Ukrainian village Fecker comes from, a banyak was a small cooking pot into which you’d put all kinds of stuff to produce one meal. Thus, for Fecker, Silas is a mixture of all things bubbling away and always on heat. Banyak was also the name of a faithful horse that brought him halfway across Europe, so the name also symbolises Silas’ loyalty to his friend.

Beware the Obvious

To finish with, here are a few things I suggest you look out for when inventing names.

  • Make sure they don’t all start with the same letter. Archer, Andrew, Andrej, Allan, Alice and Amy all appearing on one page, even in one novel, is confusing.
  • Ensure the name are time and place appropriate
  • Remember who named them. Two of my characters are named after places. Jasper Blackwood got his surname from the workhouse where he was placed as a baby. Dalston Blaze got his name because he was an unknown child rescued from a fire in a place called Dalston. He was entered into the workout register as ‘The boy from the Dalston Blaze’ and the name stuck.
  • Ensure that you proofread and keep the names consistent (says he!). It’s easy to miss a letter or not see a typo. I often write Adnrey instead of Andrej and never see it.
  • Tip: When I am reading through a full MS and come across a typo, I immediately do a search/find for that misspelt word. That way, I can pick up any other instances and correct them before I miss them again.
  • Don’t make names too complicated, even if it reads perfectly well to you.
  • Try and say something about your character in their name (see Dickens)
    Keep a list of names used so you don’t repeat yourself. This can be tricky in places and times when something like 50% of males were all called by the same name, but you’ll find a way around it.
  • Consider nicknames, but make sure you explain, subtly, that Silas is also called Banyak, and Andrej is also called Fecker, or Fecks, etc.
  • Keep nicknames consistent with the character using them. For example, only Andrej calls Lord Clearwater ‘Geroy’. It means noble in his Ukrainian, so it would be inappropriate for others to use it. Only Andrej’s closest finds are allowed to call him Fecker, so nicknames can also show relationships between characters.

Resources

And finally, another tip.

There are hundreds of baby naming websites out there, simply search for ‘popular boy/girl names,’ and you will be set for life. If writing in the modern-day.

If writing in the past, census lists, passenger lists, ‘popular Victorian names’ searches, and so on will all be invaluable.

If writing about Irish characters, or wherever, do the same thing. ‘Popular Irish names…’ or search for names of Celtic saints, if you want something mystical and old. Countries, place names… Be inventive, find them on Google Maps.

Save a bookmark file named ‘character names’ or something, and put in there the links to websites you find that are of use.

There, those were my random thoughts on naming characters. I’m off now to work on chapter 17 of the next Larkspur Mystery (still untitled), where I will be inventing more names because I’ve got something like eight murder victims to think up.

It’s all part of the fun.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back next Saturday.