Doing Your Denouement

I have just written the denouement for ‘Speaking In Silence’, and it’s prompted me to talk about the subject and what I learnt from the process of writing the novel.

All my novels tie up at the end, but they don’t always come with a classic denouement. The closest I came was in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third Clearwater novel, where James Wright explains the villain’s motivation and method. ‘Speaking In Silence’ is slightly different to other mysteries I’ve written because it’s more of a ‘What are they doing?’ mystery for the reader, who won’t know what until the climax, and won’t know how until the last scene, the denouement.

What is a Denouement?

The word is borrowed from the French and originates in Latin, as this snippet from Etymonline tells us:

1752, from French dénouement “an untying” (of plot), from dénouer “untie” (Old French desnouer) from des- “un-, out” + nouer “to tie, knot,” from Latin nodus “a knot,” from PIE root *ned- “to bind, tie.”

[PIE = The roots of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language are basic parts of words that carry a lexical meaning, so-called morphemes.]

In other words, denouement means to untie a knot. In literary terms, it means the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Or, as the dictionary also states: the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.

In other-other words, it’s that bit at the end of an Agatha Christie when Poirot stands in the drawing room and tells the assembled characters who did it and how. Of course, the technique is used in all forms of literature and creative writing, and doesn’t have to pertain to a crime story. The denouement of Romeo and Juliet happens after the two main characters are dead, for example, even though we all saw how they died.

What to Consider When Writing a Denouement

The following is based on my experience. There are plenty of free writing-advice websites that will give their own views, but having just looked at a few, they are very similar to what I worked out for myself.

Keep notes as you write towards the end

First of all, as I wrote my way through the first draft of Speaking In Silence, I made a note every time a character was seen to do something with no explanation; every time I dropped in a question mark for the reader if you like. This was to make sure I didn’t leave any knots still tied at the end. I do this with every novel, and it’s a good way to avoid the trap of ‘I’ll remember that for sure’, only to say later, ‘What was it I had to remember?’

The notes also help me see if I have given too much away to the reader, and if I need to take out anything too obvious. Thinking about ‘Silence’, I’m worried the reader will catch on to what’s happening well before the end, and so the climax won’t be a surprise. (It doesn’t have to be. I’ve found readers are as happy to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming’ as they are to have proved themselves right.)

Don’t Witter on for too Long

Says he… My denouement happens in dialogue, and I’m not sure if that’s the done thing or not, but it’s what I have done. The chapter is currently 4,000 words long, but it’s not all explanation. Some of it is character thoughts, reactions and other story matters, and the explanation of how they did it comes from four characters, not one, so there is more than one voice, and more than one point of view. They are explaining themselves to Lord Clearwater, so we are in his head, and when I felt the others were being too detailed, I had him slow them down because I imagined that’s what the reader would also be thinking.

Beware Repeats

I was conscious of not repeating what the reader already knew. They would have seen X do this and that, and the idea of the denouement isn’t to go back and relive the action, it’s to explain the reason for the action. Yes, you have to place the explanation in context, but that can be done in a few words. Also, once something has been explained, there’s no need to repeat the explanation from another character’s point of view. In my scene, with four people untying the knots, I made sure they all contributed, but they only contributed something new or added a detail that cleared up another question mark.

Show Not Tell

That old chestnut again. Think about that Agatha Christie scene when Poirot has everyone in the drawing room, the dining car or wherever, and you’ll see he does a lot of talking. Now think film, and you’ll notice there are flashbacks showing the action. That’s one way of giving the explanation, but it’s a filmic one. The way to present a ‘show’ denouement is to write a scene where the action unknots the rope, rather than dialogue doing it for you. It’s not easy, and in my opinion, some stories require a dialogue explanation. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the action during the book, there would be no deepening mystery. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the climax, it would have cluttered up the pace. The only way I could make it work in ‘Silence’ was to have the four characters tell Clearwater — who knows what they have done — exactly how they did it.

Keep to the Rules

Although it’s right at the end of the book, my denouement still keeps to the rules of character arc and development, scene structure, location, description and pace. It’s not just one long dialogue of this-then-that. There is some character-created humour, we come away with the sense that a particular character has changed, and we know where we are (Clearwater’s drawing room with the footman coming and going). As well as all that, the scene ends with a great big question mark which will lead us into the next instalment. Not exactly a cliff-hanger because the reader knows the answer to the question, but the characters don’t.

Other Advice Answered

I pulled a few random tips of denouement writing off the internet. I’ve justified my ending against them.

Keep it short. Each part of my explanation is short, but there are a lot of things to explain, and that, I did on purpose.

The denouement validates the story. I always aim for this (see the end of ‘Fallen Splendour’ for my favourite story validation). The denouement validates what has changed for a character or a situation.

Convey a new normal. I have left the reader knowing a particular character will now be better off, and one will be worse off. That is their new normal.

Characters’ futures. Similar to the new normal; the conflicts have been resolved, and normalcy returns to the characters, although that normalcy might/should be changed. I’ve also put in a question mark, and the denouement is followed by a short epilogue which takes us towards the next story.

Epilogue Vs Denouement This is summarised very nicely at this page from masterclass.com:

Denouement is an essential conclusion to plotted conflict, while the epilogue is an optional afterward in which the author shows readers how characters have fared after the events chronicled in the work.

In ‘Speaking In Silence’, the epilogue concerns the villain and leads us into the next story. I now have a completed first draft and can set about rewriting the whole thing and improving it, all the while, aiming towards that all important denouement.

‘Speaking in Silence’ should be ready by July, and you can keep up to date with its progress on my weekly Wednesday WIP blog.

What’s On Your First Page?

The importance of the first few lines

In showbiz, they say, ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’ When writing a novel, I say, it’s how you start and finish.

While standing in the bookshop or browsing through Amazon, many people will pick up a book and look at the cover first. If the cover and title grab them, they will then read the back blurb. If that intrigues them, they will read the first line, and if that appeals, they may read the first page. After your cover, title and blurb, your first page is the most important part of your book, so today’s blog is about what a first page should do. You can expand that to the first couple of pages or the first chapter, but really, what the first page should do is grab the reader and drag them into the story.

Opening Lines

Before we get into an examination of what’s on your first page, I wanted to have a look at some opening sentences, just to make a point:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)


There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

And the point is, it’s not only the first chapter or page which should engage, the very first line should too. When I wrote the first line of The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge, I wanted to sum up the entire story, set the background and inspire the reader to look forward. This is what I came up with:

John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.

Barrenmoor Ridge is about a mountaineer coming to terms with the death of his lover while rescuing a younger man from a mountain and falling back in love. The first page opens halfway through a scene, as all good scenes should, they say. Having just written that, I thought I’d examine some of my other opening lines to see whether I followed my own advice.

Andrej waited until the darkest hour before he untied his wrists with his teeth, and freed his feet from the knots.

[Banyak & Fecks]


Jasper Blackwood’s life changed beyond recognition on the morning of 27th July 1889.

[Home from Nowhere]


Liam Dent was wondering if the time was right to come out to his best friend when the man who would nearly kill them stepped on his foot.

[The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge.]

You can see, there’s something of a formula, but not always. The opening for ‘Other People’s Dreams’, my first novel, is an advertisement:

Do you want to live out my dream?

One yacht, a thousand islands and all the time in the world.

36-year-old guy with the money and the fantasy seeks four fit, young, gay lads to crew his boat in the Greek islands. (No experience necessary)

You must be trustworthy, attractive, loyal, adventurous, uninhibited and free from June through to September with no ties.

All expenses and living allowance paid in return.

Certain strings attached.

Write with photo to Jake, Box No. 2006

The first sentence in your novel is as important as all the others, but is usually the first one someone will read before deciding whether to buy a book. Grab ’em from the start and hold ’em until the end. But before they even reach the end of chapter one, they need to get past the first page…

Meanwhile, on the First Page

One Stop For Writers (OSFW) released a guide, ‘How to Craft a Winning First Page’ (see the image), and I am using that as a guide while I examine the openings of two of my novels. The details of each section are on the image, but below, I’m comparing what OSFA suggests against what I did. Bear in mind, I hadn’t read this advice or any like it when I wrote the two novels I’m going to look at, The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge (2018), and Deviant Desire (2019).

The notes on the image expand the OSFW advice, but in summary, it suggests five things a first page should do:

  1. Start in the right spot – begin just before a major event in the main character’s life
  2. Show – basically, don’t start with too much backstory (plenty of time for that later)
  3. Tighten up – don’t be wordy, don’t drag it out (plenty of time for that later too)
  4. Raise a question – create intrigue
  5. Build empathy – make the reader like the MC

How do my two examples compare?

The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge

The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge

Here’s the opening line:

John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.

Start in the right spot. Catching sight of the impact character (Gary) is the catalyst for the love story that follows. We also enter the story halfway through a discussion. That’s a common trick used by Shakespeare among many others. Other good ways to open are on a journey in progress, with an argument, with a bang, or right in the middle of some action. When I wrote Banyak & Fecks, I originally started with Andrej (Fecks) standing over the ruins of his burnt-out home and remembering his childhood. That section is still in the first chapter, but it was too slow for an opening. Now we start with him escaping from a camp, stealing back his knife, and running from certain death. A little more grabbing than a character feeling sorry for himself.

But I digress…

Show. I.e., trimming down the backstory. My Barrenmoor Ridge first page contains lines such as, ‘You were talking about another base camp season,’ he said, showing us that John has worked at Everest base camp before, he’s got something to do with mountaineering, and a discussion has happened before we arrived. Showing, not telling, is something that confuses many aspiring authors, and it can be a hard one to get your head around. I tell plot and action all the time, because sometimes you have to, but I always aim to show things like emotion and feeling. Rather than saying ‘he felt sad’, or ‘John was angry,’ show John crying or kicking over a chair and shouting. The reader will imagine more and thus, be drawn further into the story and character. In Barrenmoor Ridge, John is distracted and not concentrating, and he’s shaking because of something or someone he’s just seen.

Tighten up. There are two paragraphs on my first page that tell us where we are, what’s going on, and give us some atmosphere. We are in the climbers’ café in Inglestone, where cigarette smoke hung in the clammy air mixed with the blue fog of over-fried food. That’s enough to set the scene. We don’t need too many other details of the café beyond the tablecloths and plastic bottles of sauce.

Raise a question. Hopefully, the opening line, John’s trembling hand and a couple of other things raise questions. Who did he just see? Why is he trembling? Why is he refusing a job? How will his life change?

Build empathy. In the opening scene/page, John is doing what most of us have done: meeting with someone in a café and having breakfast. It’s what in screenwriting terms they call ‘the normal world.’ However, the second character tells him, ‘Not just any season,’ she said. ‘Possibly your last. You’re not getting any younger.’ So, we now know he’s getting on a bit, it’s a special opportunity, and he’s done it before. Over the page, we learn that John is getting over the death of his lover, so hopefully, that builds more empathy.

Having just reread that opening, I know I could have done better for a variety of reasons, but, in my defence, it was only my second novel as Jackson, and I was still building my style. A year later, I wrote what was to be a standalone novel based around the Jack the Ripper murders (although in an area of London called ‘Greychurch’ where the Ripper was killing rent boys). Deviant Desire then became the first in an ongoing series of Victorian mysteries, but that wasn’t my original intention. Had it been, I probably would have begun the story in exactly the same way.

Deviant Desire

Opens with:

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

Can you see the similarities between that and Barrenmoor? Yeah, well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Start in the right spot. That opening line tells us that the catalyst is on its way; Silas’ life is about to change because of what someone else is doing off stage. The first paragraph goes on to say that even if Silas knew what was to become of him, he wouldn’t have been bothered, because Silas wasn’t the kind of youth to shy from a challenge, not even one that might threaten his life. (Ooh, something dangerous is coming…)

Show. This is about cutting out too much backstory, remember? Well, there isn’t any on the first page, but there is plenty in later chapters. Although this opening is ‘wordy’ in that it is descriptive, that is to set the atmosphere of an October night in London’s East End in 1888. You can’t write about the Ripper and not have atmosphere. Thus, I get a bit Dickensian while making the reader want to know more about Silas’ past:

In these times, hunger was a keener motivator than sense. It drove need, need drove experience, and in the four years since he had turned his first trick, experience had prepared him for the dangers of life.”

There is some backstory there, four years since he had turned his first trick, but I didn’t really go into detail about those four years until nine books later when I wrote the prequel, Banyak & Fecks, and the story in which those four years come back to haunt Silas, Negative Exposure.

Tighten up. I refer you to the section above about atmosphere. However, the story starts with a bold statement that tells us something major is about to happen to this man who is searching through rubbish leftover at a market hoping to find food. He’s hungry, cold, and he ‘turns tricks.’ We also learn a bit about his character while reading what I hope is suitable and descriptive prose.

Raise a question. As with Barrenmoor, the questions arise from the opening sentence. Who is Silas Hawkins? Why is he searching for coins? Who is the man four miles distant? Why should he change someone’s life? Is the ‘ten years older’ relevant? Will we get an older/younger romance? Later on the page, we learn he’s been turning tricks and we might wonder why, how, and will we get to know more about that?

Build empathy. If you don’t feel sorry for a gamin (street urchin) rooting through trash so he can live, shivering, prostituting himself even during the time of the Ripper and generally not having a pleasant life, then you need to work on your empathy skills. Joking aside, it’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel empathy. Hence, phrases on this page such as Every night on the grimy, gaslit streets was dangerous, and every unlit customer a potential killer, but the threat of starvation gnawed harder than the fear of violence.

A Few Last Words About the First Words

There is a practise in the film script writing world to do with how you introduce a character and how you say goodbye to them. It’s a case of first impressions count, but so do last ones, and the same applies to novel writing. I’m not necessarily talking about the main character here; the rule applies to all characters and to the novel itself. How you meet an entire story is as important as how you meet the MC and others, but so is how you leave it.

Take from the attached advice from One Stop For Writers what you will, but I am going to end with an ending.

In Deviant Desire, we meet Silas on that grimy street, and we leave him 300 pages and one adventure later somewhere entirely different. As for the story, it starts thus:

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

By the time I got to the end, I decided it was to be an ongoing series, thus, it ends with a different character whose name I have omitted so as not to spoil the story for you.

Revenge was not something [he] thought he would ever contemplate, but he found the idea of it suited him and, as he ordered an ale, he turned his mind to a variety of ways it might be exacted.

Continued in part two, Twisted Tracks

Remember, it’s about how you start and how you finish. It’s about how you introduce your reader to your story, how they leave the story and how the story leaves them. The mark of good storytelling comes when a reader finishes a book wanting to know what happens next to the people in it. This means they have connected with the characters and their world and don’t want the journey to end. The mark of a good first page is to do the same in reverse: to make your reader want to take the journey in the first place.

You can join me on my writer’s journey by tuning into my regular Wednesday work in progress blog. Currently, we’re journeying through Speaking In Silence, the Larkspur Mysteries book five.

The Author’s Bible

Or, in my case, two bibles, and we’re not talking religious texts. We’re talking about notebooks. Today, I thought I’d take you through my author’s bible. In other words, how I keep track of characters, places, descriptions and facts when writing a long and ongoing series. The photos show my two main notebooks, with brief explanations as to what you are looking at.

In the Beginning…

I have a chest in which I keep my original notes. I started this collection about two years BC (that’s Before Clearwater), and the papers are now yellowing, and the writing is fading. I used to make notes about the stories I was writing on pieces of scrap A4 paper, usually the backs of drafts I’d had printed, and among them is a list of most commonly mistyped words. I use that to check the full manuscript when I reach the end of a draft; words like form and from, for example. But these notes are not my author’s bible, that is a leather-bound, blank page notebook Neil bought me for Christmas 2018, and just after I’d written ‘Curious Moonlight’, I decided to start keeping my story thoughts in it. The first few pages concern a Gormenghast type story I was thinking of writing, and the only thing not now crossed out is a list of names: Anthem, the choirmaster, Pook, a serving boy, Tripp, a footman, and Archie with no job, but whose name means ‘genuine and bold.’

The beginning. As you can see, the Clearwater Series started in January 2019, and the first book was originally titled Deviant Lamplight, then Deviant Devotion and finally, Deviant Desire because the other two ideas were, frankly, terrible.

And therein lies the beginning of the Clearwater Mysteries. ‘A brethren of seven…’ was among my first notes, and I carried that idea over to the Clearwater crew: Archer, Silas, Fecker, James, Thomas… Well, a brethren of five that later becomes seven with Jasper and Billy, and then eight with Mrs Norwood, and so on until I now have a cast of thousands.

So, with 11 Clearwater books and, now, four Larkspur novels, how do I keep track of the details, and why?

Why is Easy

If you read a book and the character has blue eyes in chapter one, but brown eyes in chapter ten… If Larkspur Hall was in Bodmin one moment, and near Bodmin the next, or if Silas’ mother came from Dublin in one book and somewhere else in another… You see where I am going with this? It’s easy, as an author, to think I’ll remember that, and not write things down. Later, say two or three full novels later, you think, Ah yes, I remember I had to remember that, but what was it…? And then, you spend half a day searching your copy of the novel you thought the fact was in, only not to find it, and end up rewriting your section to avoid having to mention the important fact.

Keeping concise but accurate notes about the world you are inventing is safer all-round, even though you think, It’s my world, I won’t forget that.

You will.

How is Another Matter

Every author has their own way of keeping a record, notes, the author’s bible, as it’s commonly known. Some hire people to do it for them, to read the entire series and make notes on everything. Some people do this because they are fans, others, to earn money. I do it as I go, but I don’t do it in any structured way, by which I mean, my bible doesn’t have an index. I do, though, know roughly where to find things, and failing that, I flick through the pages.

Once I knew Deviant Desire was going to lead to a second book, I decided to use my new leather notebook to keep my facts, and started with Archer.

Archer’s notes updated over time.

These two pages contain the basics about my main character. His full name, titles, date of birth and other unchangeable facts like where and when he went to school and his physical description. Over the page, we have a double-page spread about Silas, including the date he and Archer met, and how old he is. Then comes Andrej (Fecker), Thomas, ‘East End and other characters’, minor characters not seen, other locations, a glossary, the list of murders, places and dates (from Deviant Desire), and a page of random notes.

After a blank page comes the name Sam Wright… Crossed out and replaced by Jim… Crossed out and finally replaced by James Joseph Wright, messenger, 25 years old (born Jan 10th 1863), started at post office aged 14, not 100% attractive (sorry, Jimmy), Fecker’s nickname for him Tato (daddy), and ‘James writes with a pen (book 9).’

Moving through the book, I find lists of dates as to when things happened, who works at the house next door, a page listing servants’ wages in 1888, and a rough plan of the ground floor of Clearwater House.

Clearwater House. My first attempt at a layout to help me picture how to get from one room to another, to improve consistency.

As you might have gathered by now, I keep the notes according to the book I am writing at the time. I stop now and then, usually after completing a book, to add to the previous pages and make other notes and lists about the world, not about the stories; that’s a separate matter. For the Clearwater series, I kept story notes in a separate notebook, jotting down ideas and points to answer, clues to solve and how, and story details, then later, I put the pertinent ones in the bible. If I filled the pages of the leather book with story notes, there would be so many things crossed out, it would make the book messy and even harder to read than it is.

Moving on, we next find a page outlining the characters’ skills, because, at that time, I was comparing them to superheroes – not in the stories, but in my head. So Archer was Iron Man and skilled in combat, money, and status. James (Captain America), communications, fitness, strength. Fecker (Thor), strength, loyalty, transport. Thomas (J.A.R.V.I.S.), Logic, cool head, planning… And so on.

For ‘Twisted Tracks’, I drew a map of the railway route I’d invented. Book three’s notes include a page of villains, and who was dead by then, and book four outlines who was on the board of the Clearwater Foundation. Also in the Fallen Splendour section are notes such as ‘Silas wears Curzon cologne’, and ‘Fanny… crossed out, Sarah… crossed out… Mrs Norwood, 40s, James’ old schoolteacher.’

Book five is set at Larkspur Hall, and as that was the first time we’d been there in detail, there’s a list of servants, places on the estate, ‘A patchwork of a property,’ ‘Ruined church from Dissolution’, and ‘abbey given in 1538,’ which is a worry as I am sure I’ve said it was another date in another book.

You see, even though you keep notes, you don’t always use them. I know I once messed up on the address of Clearwater House saying, in one book, it was in Bucks Avenue and then in another that it was in Bucks Row. (Bucks Row was a site of a Jack the Ripper murder.) I was able to go back and change that later, but I am sure there are other minor inconsistencies caused by ‘I remember that, no need to look it up.’

Occasionally, I paste things into the bible, such as this note, written on the back of receipt.

Romanian. Gabriel’s translation and some of my notes about pronunciation.

I was sitting at our local café one day and was joined by a Romanian friend. That was handy because I was writing ‘Bitter Bloodline’, which features a Romanian villain, and although I’d used Google translate, I wanted to be sure the most important sentence in the book was correct. Gabriel, my Romanian mate, wrote it down for me, and then I told him we were talking about Transylvania in 1889. He rewrote it, because the language would have been slightly different, and that’s what that note is all about.

What Else Should Be in the Bible?

I don’t want to bore you with details of every page of my book, but apart from those things mentioned above, it also contains pages titled:

Height, Hair & Build (brief character references)

Skills (again, but with more characters)

Archers’ family tree by three generations

Notes about Larkspur Hall

A calendar of character’s birthdays (Harvey, a minor character, June 2nd, Jasper Blackwood, 1st August, Silas, 21st October, etc.) These minor facts are useful to know and use because they add depth to stories, even if it’s only a mention.

A calendar of years of birth. Archer 1859, Thomas 1861, Fecker, probably 1865 but no-one really knows.

A rough map of the area around Clearwater House

Extended family tree for The Clearwater Inheritance

Who’s Who at Larkspur Hall, March 1890

The guest list for Archer’s 31st birthday party

Ages. Character’s ages through the years and some other major events. This makes it so much easier to remember how old people are. If you look closely, you’ll see that Fecker started renting in 1883 when he was 16, though he may have been older, and James started at the post office (PO) in 1877. You never know when such trivia will come in useful.

And so on and so on until we hit a page on which I have (badly) drawn three standing stones and the title The Larkspur Mysteries, June 2021, and underlined it in red as if it were school homework.

Two Bibles

I’m now a two-bible household. I keep the leather notebook going, and still add to previous pages, while using up more to give the same basic details of the new characters from the Larkspur Mysteries. However, when I started this second series, I decided to use a large, lined book that a friend had made for me. The cover is decorated with the titles of the books from the Clearwater Mysteries, but I am using the book as a bible/notebook for the Larkspur Series.

Big book.
Notes on the viscountcy of Larkspur from 1541 to the present day (1891), for ‘Seeing Through Shadows.’

That’s one example of how I am creating the Larkspur bible alongside the Clearwater bible. I’m not repeating facts from the first to the second, but I am adding facts from the second to relevant places in the first. I’m also using it to outline the stories, track the timeline, create character arcs, and make story notes. The Clearwater bible remains my go-to place for the basics, but now, using the larger Larkspur book, I can keep all my story notes in one, lovely to write on, set of pages and not the old trunk.

Revelations

I hope you found the above interesting. If I have a final point to make about why authors should keep a bible, it’s this:

When you create a fictional world, you are the Creator. You are omnipotent and expected to know all, see all, and care for all you have created. Unless you really are the Creator, it’s unlikely you will store every fabulous fact in your memory, so if in doubt, write it down.

Notebooks yet to be used, except for the green one which I used when writing the Saddling series as James Collins.

As for me, I have plenty more notebooks waiting to be filled…

Narrating as the Villain

Should you write from the villain’s point of view?

That’s a question I asked myself when I was writing ‘Agents of the Truth’, and although I’d written from a villain’s point of view before, this time, doing so brought up a tricky question. There are no story/plot/twist spoilers in this post, and I refer to the villain as ‘he’ for ease of reading/writing. It might be a she or a they. You will only find out when you read the book.

Narrating From the Villain’s Pont Of View

Mythcreants.com have a very useful article on when to narrate a villain’s point of view which brings up some very good points and considerations on this subject. For example, the author of the post first asks why?

Why put the reader in the mind of the baddy? On the plus side, it’s a way to bring in more of a threat, you can explain to the reader why the villain is doing what he/she is doing, and you can show the reader what is going on ‘off stage’ while the protagonist is going about his business.

There are, however, pitfalls to doing this, and writing as the bad guy needs to be handled carefully. The advice is not to make him over the top, don’t make him too demented or else he won’t be believable, don’t make him ‘cold’ or cliché, and don’t give too much away. Don’t make him too sympathetic.

I think back to my favourite villain of all time, Dracula. In Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, we never hear from his point of view except when he is talking as reported by someone else; we never read his diaries or journals as we do with the other main characters, and yet we know a) what he is up to, b) what he plans to do, and c) how evil he is.

Writing from a villain’s point of view (POV) can be a very useful tool for an author. It can do several things.

1          Put the reader in the baddy’s mind and explain motivation

2          Build tension and increase the threat

3          Make your reader more sympathetic to the bad guy, thereby making the character more real and believable.

4          Explain conflict backstory

But, there is also a danger that being with the villain for a while can move the story away from the hero’s journey, give too much away, distract from the plot, and slow things down. So, all villain POV scenes must be handled with care.

How I Write From the Villain’s Point of View

The first time I put myself and my reader into the mind of the anti-hero was in ‘Deviant Desire’, and even back then, I knew not to give too much away. I described someone taking opium and plotting… something, I wrote of his hatred and his motivation, and I set the scene in a dark, dismal place physically to reflect the killer’s frame of mind emotionally. I didn’t, however, give away his name or too many of his intentions. To have done so would have spoilt the story for the reader and ruined the most important twist.

Three years and 14 books later, I wrote a different villain into ‘Agents of the Truth’, and I kept to my rules. We meet the villain in a dark and unpleasant place (so we associate him with darkness in the classic good Vs evil style), we hear him talking to himself, and we learn what has driven him to his course of action. We also, perhaps, feel a little sorry for him, and I think making your villain sympathetic to a point is not a bad thing. We’ve all been driven to do bad things, some worse than others, and it’s good to challenge your reader with the thoughts, ‘What if it was me? What would drive me to do this? What happened to him/her to make them do it? That could have been me.’ It makes a connection between reader and character, and that, I hope, makes the bad guy more realistic and thus, more of a threat.

By the time we meet the evil one in ‘Agents’, we think we know who he is – even so, I didn’t mention his name, thereby leaving the reader a little room for doubt. What I did do, though, was make it clear what the villain was planning. Not in great detail, but in just enough so we knew more than the main characters. Apart from the obvious, my villain has a flaw; indecision. We think we know what he is going to do, but we don’t know to whom, and thus, the anti-hero’s indecision helps build tension.

As the story progresses, we discover the when and where of the danger, even though the hero doesn’t, and again, this helps build tension as we drive towards the climax.

Knowing More Than the Hero

There is a technical term for this, and I just went to my stock of screenplay writing books to look up the phrase, only to find I couldn’t find it. It’s one of those things you think ‘I’ll remember that’ and never do, but if you read Aronson’s ‘The 21st Century Screenplay’, or McKee’s ‘Story’, you will eventually find it. It’s a film technique where the viewer gets to see something the protagonist doesn’t, so we know something more than he does. (‘Elevating the viewer’ or something similar.)

How many times have you watched a film and wanted to say, ‘Don’t do it!’ because the obvious outcome has been set up and you know what’s coming? Well, that’s called… the something I can’t remember, but you know what I mean. It’s a kind of foreshadowing, but one that’s specific to the relationship between hero, anti-hero and viewer or reader. By using this technique, you are elevating the reader’s knowledge above that of the hero, and used well, that can be a great way to heighten tension.

What you can also do is mislead your reader by making them think the villain is going to do X, when in fact, they end up doing Y. That will give you a twist, but that twist has to be logical and foreshadowed. It’s the point in a story when you know something bad or twisty is on its way and you prepare by clutching the sofa cushions, or drawing the blanket up to your eyes in readiness, and then… Oh! I didn’t see that coming. Then you think, Actually, I did, but the clues to it were subtly hidden behind the obvious. If they weren’t, then your reaction is likely to be, What a load of rubbish, because you have been misled for the sake of it.

I don’t mislead my readers, but I might misdirect them on the path to a more fulfilling surprise, and letting them into the villain’s mind can help do this.

My point here is that it’s fine to tell you reader things the hero doesn’t know, but don’t go too far and spoil the twist.

Adding Depth to Your Storytelling Via the Villain

Let me take you back to my English A Level class, one afternoon in the late spring of 1981. Mrs Purvis is taking us through Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’, and we are examining a passage set on the polo field in Chandrapore, India in the 1920s.

Forster describes the ball being knocked about on the polo field, the British men charging about on horses, the grass on which they play, and the field running into the distance where it meets the (mainly Indian) spectators, because the British Raj folk are in the better-equipped tents. From there, the description takes us beyond the fields to the foothills and thence, to the mountains rising above, and above even them, the sky, until the view reaches its zenith with the sun.

‘Do you see how Forester was making us consider the levels of society?’ Mrs Purvis asks. ‘He is showing us the strata of the Raj, and the caste system. The lower caste being the field trampled underfoot, the class divisions above it, the mountains as the rising hierarchy of the Raj, and behind it, the sky and an even greater power, God.’

‘Miss?’ A rather bored eighteen-year-old raises his hand. ‘Ain’t he just talking about a game of polo?’

(I was more interested in the gay subtext of the novel, the closest thing you could get to MM romance in my youth after ‘Maurice.’)

What’s That Got to do With Writing Your villain?

Symbolism, dear boy! As Mrs Purvis might have proclaimed.

Symbolism is a great tool when writing any kind of fiction, and we can use it like Forster — who may well have consciously written his layered scene to symbolise the caste system in India in the 1920s, but who, I suspect, did it without thinking because he was that good.

I remember that English lesson well (there was something to do with the servant, Aziz, putting a stud into Mr Fielding’s collar that represented repressed homosexual desire, or… whatever), and it came back to me when writing ‘Agents of the Truth.’

There is a point in the novel when the reader knows more than the hero, and there’s a point a little way after that when the hero knows as much as us, and we are set up for the climax. We still don’t know the who, but we know the where and when, and so does our hero, but he is delayed. (Another useful tension-building device.) The villain, however, is not delayed and gets a head start.

At this point, I could have just written ‘He got on a train’, but I wanted to add another tension building device, albeit a more subtle one, and I wanted to be more literary. So, I wrote the following passage and, I have to tell you, I didn’t realise what I’d done until later when I reread the entire chapter.

Here’s an excerpt from ‘Agents of the Truth.’ As screenplay writers would say, it marks the entry to Act Four of the story, when everything has been set up, we know what’s coming but not how it’s going to play out. We’ve just had the ‘point of no return’ scene, the music has changed, and we’re off into the climax, sofa cushions at the ready.

‘Yeah, but, Miss, it’s just a rat and a cat, ain’t it?’

‘No, dear boy, it is symbolism reflecting the villain’s intensions.’

And, it only works because we have spent some time in the mind of our villain and narrated from the villain’s point of view.

Agents of the Truth is the third novel in The Larkspur Mysteries, and the stories are best read in order.

The Larkspur Mysteries follow on from The Clearwater Mysteries series. Both feature gay main characters, and are set at a time when homosexuality was illegal. They are a combination of MM/romance, mystery and bromance, and are inspired by historical fact.

Book Four in the series is currently in the typewriter, and you can read about its progress on my Work In Progress blog here every Wednesday.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09CNXGHV3?binding=kindle_edition&ref=dbs_dp_rwt_sb_pc_tukn

Why Do I Write a Blog?

Why Do I Write a Blog?

Today, I thought I’d take a step away from writing about my writing to write about my blogging. Blogging is, of course, another way of writing, so I suppose I am still writing about writing, only, in this case, I am writing about my blog writing. Rather, blogs, plural as I have two.

Let me start off by saying that I am writing this blog in the way that I approach most of my blogging and a great deal of my writing. Simply put, I am making it up as I go along. I tend to write from a stream of consciousness angle. Starting with an idea, in today’s case, a suggestion from my PA, Jenine, I sit at the PC with an empty page and start writing. I write what is on my mind and develop from there.

I also tend to do that when writing my books; start with an idea, imagine a scene, and then let it flow. In the case of novel writing, I then do a lot of editing work as I go over the first draft, and I also pop backwards and forwards through a manuscript while writing it to keep facts consistent and make sure I have remembered the clues correctly.

I take the same approach with blog writing, but the only editing I do is when I have finished. Then, I use a couple of writer tools to help keep me in check. Grammarly is one, and Pro Writing Aid is the other.

The danger of this unplanned approach is that I often drift from one point to the next and forget what I was talking about. Still, that’s how I blog, that’s how it goes, and that’s how this blog is going to go.

When Did Blogging Start?

You know me, I like to discover the derivations of words, and for that, I tend to use the online dictionary by typing, for example, ‘Blog derivation’ or ‘Blog meaning’ in a search string and finding the dictionary page for that word. [See the image.]

Blog, the noun, is a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.

To blog, the verb, is to add new material to or regularly update a blog.

Blog, the word, derives as a truncation of the word Weblog, or web-log, I guess, rather than ‘we blog’, and it’s been around since 1900.

Except it hasn’t.

One of the functions of that online dictionary is showing you where a word was first recorded in print, and I use that part of it a great deal. When writing the Clearwater books set in the late 19th century, for example, I often pause after writing a word and think, ‘Did that word exist then?’ A quick check will tell me when it first appeared in print, and although that’s not 100% accurate as a guide to spoken usage, it’s a help. Only this week, I paused after writing the word ‘paperwork’ and wondered if a solicitor in 1890 would use such a word? The answer? No. That word didn’t start to appear in print until the 1940s, so I changed it to documentation.

As for ‘blog’, I was surprised to find that my online resource suggested it was in use between 1910 and 1940. If you look at the image (left), the graph, you can see there’s a bump at that time, before the word took off in the late 1990s. I checked that out via Google Books, and it turned out that the source of this unlikely information was a misprint. Rather, a miss-read by some computerised scanner. The word it was reading was an abbreviation of Building, printed as BLDG in various directories, and the scanner was mistaking the D for an O.

The lesson? Always double-check your research.

What Do I Get Out of a blog?

Well, for a start, I didn’t realise ‘documentation’ wasn’t in use in 1890 either. Not until I started talking about it just now and went to check. I’d used it in yesterday’s first draft of a Clearwater chapter, thinking ‘It must be okay’, and was going to leave it there. Now, when I return to that chapter, I will change it to ‘documents’ because ‘documentation’ wasn’t used until the 20th century. You see? Blogging helps my work.

It also gives me a legitimate reason to ramble on like I am doing now, sometimes get things off my chest, and, at other times, publicise my latest book. I always hope it brings me closer to my readers and them closer to me. That is why I prefer this freestyle, stream of consciousness approach.

Paid to Blog?

I have been, and let me tell you, it can be arduous and soul-destroying. A few years ago, I fell upon a travel site that wanted stories for their posts based on personal travel experiences. Wonderful, I thought. I’ve been to a few places, I’ll chat about them. Simple.

Not.

These kinds of sites need you to be SEO targeted and keyword rich (I loath such jargon). They needed you to include keywords in H Tags, and upload images with no ALT text, hit a particular word count, supply your own images, and stick to stringent guidelines while being creative. Woe betides anyone who falls foul of this creative cagery.

Cagery being a word I just invented. I think. (He makes a quick check online. Did you mean Calgary? No, I didn’t. Checks real dictionary and discovers ‘cage’ comes between caftan and cagoule, which is an interesting costume challenge, but the word cagery doesn’t exist, not even in the sense of ‘constraint’, which is what I meant.)

I think my point here is that these ‘earn a fortune by blogging’ websites are only suitable for those who can churn out the required words within strict rules, and I’m not one of them. I did do it, for a while at least, but it was too structured for me, and I was only being paid $40.00 for what turned out to be about six hours’ work for 600 words. I’d rather write a novel of 90,000 words and be paid nothing for my time than 600 words to someone else’s formula.

But, yes, it is possible to make money out of blogging. I used to have Google Adsense  links where a programme adds adverts to your pages and if anyone clicks on one, you get $0.0002, or something, but another pet hate of mine are blogs and sites that are advert-stuffed, so that get rich quick scheme didn’t last long.

Any money I make from my two blogs comes from the sales of my own books generated from my own links and publicity.

My Blogs Are My Conversation

Me outside a cafe

I think that’s obvious from the way I am rambling on as if you and I were sat outside a café having a chat, I’d had a glass of wine, and my usual staid and quiet tongue was well loosened. I use these pages to chat to you, and thus, myself, and often, in doing so, ideas spring to mind. Sometimes, I put up a less chatty, more planned blog, and although this process takes more time, it often offers more help in developing my books. For example, last October, while writing ‘Banyak & Fecks’, I undertook a lot of research into Male Sex Workers in Victorian London, the ways of the workhouse and the poverty of the East End in the 1880s. These subjects formed the background to the story (and others in the series). I decided to blog about that research, and in doing so, had to examine documents and, thus, discover extra facts, which then went into the novel. So, blogging about novel writing can feed into that writing, and vice versa.

Writing a blog also helps me think about the stories and the characters. I’ve done a couple of interviews with characters, one A Character Interview With James Wright, you can find if you follow that link. James is one of the central characters in the Clearwater series, and in answering questions set by Jenine, I had to think deeper than what comes out of my head, and that helped develop a deeper understanding of the man I was creating.

As Jenine put in the list of ideas she sent me for this post, I could also mention that writing a regular blog ‘Allows your PA to boss you around.’ That’s a good thing for both of us, because it stops me from being lazy, and it makes her feel like she’s doing something useful.

I hope you have gathered by now that I also like to put humour into my blogging.

I also put an awful lot of typos because I write as I think, and even my editing software doesn’t pick up everything. For example, before I changed it, the above sentence read, ‘I also like to put hummus into my blogging’, and on more than one occasion, I have written things like, ‘You must see this bog’, and ‘The main character is a cuntess.’ (I now have a heap of personalised corrections in Word auto-correct.)

And As For The Other Blog?

I have been mentioning my two blogs, this being one of them. The other, I have had on the go since about 2005. It started out as a website where I could publicise my husband’s photo shop on the Greek island of Symi. Later, it developed into a site where I could also talk about the books I was writing about living on a Greek island. Later still, when we closed the shop, I continued the blog because it had gained a huge following, and my mother liked to know what I was up to. It went from being a once-a-month update to a weekly one to a seven day a week chat and is now a five day per week chat about me, my life, my writing and day to day living on a Greek island. I also sound off about Brexit and ruffle a few feathers from time to time, and Neil and I post photos five times per week.

So, if you can stand this kind of ‘train of thought’ style, want to know what I, personally and as James, my real name, is up to here on Symi, Greece, then bookmark Symi Dream (symidream.com) where you can find me chatting about everything and nothing.

Blog Off

And so, thank you for listening to me thus far. I am going now, as I must turn my attention back to Clearwater 10, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’, which is now up to a worrying 120,000 words in 1st draft form and still not reached its climax. This may well turn out to be a story in two parts. Either that, or I will have to chop out many interesting and fun scenes that are not 100% on-story, but which do contain elements of the mystery, and rework the whole thing. If I do, I may then publish the cut scenes separately or give them away for free in my newsletter, and if I do that, then I will make sure that I have not cut out any necessary plot points or clues.

Maybe I’ll just treat everyone to a very long Clearwater, like a Downton Abbey Christmas special and have done with it.

One thing’s for sure. As the writing of the book and its publication continue, I will be blogging about it.

The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge

The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge

Over the New Year, I took a break from writing The Clearwater Mysteries and wrote ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge.’ I’m not sure why it decided to pop out just then, but it did. I wrote the novel, ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge’ a couple of years ago, and for a reason I’ve yet to fathom, it did better than any of my previous releases. It still does well, I am pleased to say, and maybe it was that which inspired me to write ‘The Students…’

This novel took me back in memory to the age of seventeen/eighteen, and to the issue of what we’d now call bromance. I wanted to explore the idea of when a bromance is something more, but neither party has the way with all to admit they want the friendship to develop further because they fear rejection. The strength of young, male friendships, the intensity of them, and how it is easy to confuse platonic love of a friend for something deeper, is a theme that runs through many of my novels. Or, if not ‘easy to confuse’ then difficult to separate the feelings of being mates from the feelings of being in love and what that can lead to; self-denial, lost love, missed opportunities…

In ‘The Students…’ Liam and Casper are the two main characters, and they are pictured on the front cover. Casper is the dark-haired, Greek/English man and Liam is the blond one, both musically brilliant, both suffering doubts in their own way. They take off on a camping trip which Liam has designed because he wants to have Casper on his own to make his ‘confession’, i.e., come out. He has chosen to visit Inglestone (or, Ingleton as it is in real life) and walk up Fellborough (Ingleborough) one of the three peaks. He is also there to see the famous Ribblehead Viaduct for reason of his own which don’t become apparent until the end. However, bad weather gets in the way and leads to a life or death emergency towards the top of the fell. That’s where the characters from ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge’ come in…

John Hamilton and Gary Taylor from ‘The Mentor…’ appear in this story as the mentors of the two younger men, and as ‘The Students…’ is set two years after the first book, their lives have moved on a pace. So, if you enjoyed the first book, ‘The Mentor…’ you can continue John and Gary’s lives in this, the second in the series. You will find drama, action, adventure, mountain rescue, rock climbing, some laughs and plenty of sweet moments during the story, and who knows, there may even be a third instalment in the future.

For now, though, I am back to The Clearwater Mysteries, my most successful venture to date, and I am working on part six, with a working title of ‘Artful Deception.’ There will be more about that in due course. Meanwhile, look out for news of a blog tour for ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge’, and check out my Facebook Page for more information. If you do go to the page, please give it a like, and if you do read any of the books, please give them a review.

I’ll leave you with the first review of ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge’ which, when I read it, completely made my day.

What a beautiful novel… A perfect sequel to The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge.
This novel tells a story of 2 people discovering more about themselves and discovering more about each other. It’s touching, exciting, filled with adventure, and will take you on the most incredible journey. The characters are so well developed it’s like you’ve known them for a long time.
Re-introducing John and Gary from the first novel was such a nice treat.
This novel is highly recommended. Another beautiful novel by Mr. Jackson Marsh.

[The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge – Amazon.com (and other Amazon outlets) Kindle, print and KU.)

Research

Research

My collection of research books for the new series I am writing is expanding. The Clearwater Mysteries series is set in Victorian times (1888) and set in a city which is clearly London, but because I need to take liberties with history, I have made it an ‘imaginary London of 1888’. When I say liberties, I mean, for example, in book one of the series, the Ripper is killing men, not women, and so I am mixing fact with fiction.

In my stories (The Clearwater Mysteries), as in truth, the identity of the Ripper is never known, except in my series, we do know who he is, and we see what he went on to do after those crimes ended. We also find out why. In other places, I have stayed close to the facts but not quite, using some real locations, basing characters and their names on people of the time or near the time. Example, in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’ (still in editing and not yet published), I have a barrister called Sir Easterby Creswell. I took his name from a real judge in the 19th century called Sir Creswell Creswell (whose family name was Easterby), and so on.

Over the weekend, I received two more books to add to the collection of things to be read when I take time off from writing. So far, I have collected several actual books, which I prefer, and a few Kindles. I find Kindle good for when I want some information now and don’t want to have to wait two weeks for an online order to arrive. If the book is something I will keep and use again, I’ll then order a paper or hardback copy.

Off the top of my head (I am in the study at 4.30 a.m., and the books are scattered around the house, and I don’t want to make noise by searching for them), I have gathered books about the stately homes of England, Victorian buildings, the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, life in Victorian London, Jack the Ripper (I already have several), a collection of writings by ordinary people of the time, first-hand accounts of daily life etc., a book on the railways, the history of the Ukraine, ‘The Sins of Jack Saul’ and Saul’s allegedly penned, er, ‘novel’ about the life of a male street worker in those days, a dictionary of Victorian slang, a Bradshaw’s guide (1886, reprint), and several railways maps from the time. There are others, but I expect you’re getting bored by now. What I am looking for next is a good Atlas of the country from around that time, something as detailed as the large, green-cover Readers’ Digest atlas we used to have when younger.

[Here’s the link to the first three books of the series, The Clearwater Mysteries]

Mentoring

Mentoring

I want to find an aspiring new author I can help via one-to-one mentoring.

As my readers know, I tend towards an older/younger, mentor/student theme in many of my novels. At least, there is usually a more experienced character and a younger one who is not so experienced. Through the stories, the older mentors the younger, and sometimes it works the other way around, but this theme of passing on knowledge and experience is one that intrigues me and maybe that’s because I have a hankering for doing it myself. Mentoring, I mean, not the other stuff that goes on between the characters (inserts a knowing wink).

The Mentor of Lonemarsh HouseThe trouble I’ve had is finding a place where I can offer to do this. For example, I’ve posted in some of the Facebook gay writing groups offering a free service to anyone who is interested, and had a few replies, but mainly from people who missed the point of the offer. Maybe I need to reword it, but I don’t think so, it’s a simple offer.

Because of time and personal interest/experience, I’d be interested in working with a young, gay, male author who wants to improve their writing, someone with whom I can share my experience and thoughts, ideas, encouragement and knowledge, passing on what I have learned over the past 20 years as a professional writer. It’s as simple as that. I’m encouraging people to contact me and start a discussion so we can first find out more about each other to see if we can work together. Read my criteria, drop me an email, and we’ll take it from there.

The Stoker ConnectionAbout you
You want to start writing or improve your writing. Either way, you must be serious
You are a gay man over the age of 18, open to mentoring, advice and criticism
You are committed to developing your skills and listening to experience
You write in English
You are honest
Your writing doesn’t have to be MM romance, but it must be gay-men themed

About me
I have published 22 novels under two names
I am a married, gay man, English and educated to MSc level
I have won awards for my stories, musicals and film scripts
I earn my living through writing (yes, it can be done)

About the process
Contact me with a basic CV of your experience no matter if it’s limited
State what it is you want to achieve. Simply better writing? Developing a story?
Tell me about yourself
If you’re what I’m looking for, we’ll start an email discussion and take it from there.
I will reply to all emails honestly
I am not charging for this offer. In fact, if I think we are compatible, I will send you one of my books for free so you can read what I write and see if you think I’m for you
I can only take on one writer at a time
Our discussions will be private

So, there are no strings and no charge, but commitment and honesty are a must, and I can only accept one new writer at a time. Please double check the criteria and send me an email with your details. I’ll get back to you either way.

jack@jacksonmarsh.com

I look forward to hearing from you.