Secrets

 

‘People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ George Orwell

 

Some ideas are just bigger than you think they are going to be. When I first started to write Night Vision, I had various themes I wanted to explore and the desire to put Naomi and Alec in a wider, more ‘political thriller’ sort of setting – not easy when their natural home has been small town police procedural. What I didn’t intend was for Night Vision to become the start of a sort of loose trilogy, within the Naomi Blake series though that’s what seems to have happened.

Night Vision came to a very logical end, but there was a vague feeling of unfinished business, a kind of itch in the brain, that no amount of head scratching could get rid of. Then Molly Chambers appeared, complaining that there was a man with a gun, standing in her garden and I had this sort of inkling that writing Secrets, was going to get complicated. When Gregory, from Night Vision, turned up unexpectedly my suspicion was confirmed. Themes and ideas that had begun in Night Vision became threads in Secrets; threads that led back in time, decades back to when Molly was young and idealistic and the Cold War was just about to get really chilly.

I suppose, though, that the writing of Secrets really began way back in about 1994, just after my first book, The Greenway, had been accepted for publication. A relative talked to me about his time in what had been the Belgian Congo, in the early sixties, just as the country was gaining independence. The UN was still a fledgling organisation and the big players in the Cold War were turning their attention to post colonial Africa. It was clear that there were stories here, well worth telling. I even tried to write something, but couldn’t get a proper sense of what the narrative should be about or how to approach it. So the idea was shelved.

Sometimes, though, these narratives coalesce in their own time. Molly Chambers had been a character I’d invented for my original story. She was then a young woman but now, older, fiercer, maybe wiser(?) but certainly not willing to be ignored, she took up a position dead centre of my story and would not budge. Secrets isn’t the story I intended to write back in 1994, this story is framed within the Naomi Blake series and so the parameters are quite different, but the history is, in some ways, the same. The incidents that happened in Molly’s youth have sent ripples down the years, the old guard of the Cold War are mostly gone, and what intrigued me now was the sense of unfinished business as events begun so many decades ago continue to impact.

The funny thing is that suddenly the world seems to be talking about the Congo and events that happened back in the early 1960s, or maybe, as is the nature of things, I’m just suddenly aware of it. I recently came across photographs taken by a particular hero of mine, Horst Faas, taken in South Kasai, which tried to gain independence for itself as a breakaway nation. I knew his work in Vietnam and beyond, but had no idea he also photographed the Bakuba. Then there’s the Young Vic production of Aime Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo (translated by Ralph Manheim) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and the brilliant book, ‘Who Killed Hammarskold by Susan Williams. A strange synchronicity seems to be occurring.

Secrets is about more than the Belgian Congo; more than post colonialism. That is just one thread in a story, the ripples of which will most likely continue to nudge outwards, long after the deaths of most of the participants. It does pick up directly from Night Vision, which has as part of its theme the changing of the old, Cold War guard and the new emphasis on electronic intelligence, use of drones, world war fought at a distance. The trappings have changed, but I’m not sure much else has and most of what is happening now has deep roots, a long and bloody history. Ironically, in part because colonial powers and particularly British colonial powers were so damned good at keeping records and implementing bureaucratic processes, root and branch are now so much more traceable.

And now I am writing the third in this loose trilogy. This brings events into the present moment; the ongoing ‘war against terror’ is the latest, very public face, of our secret society. Recent revelations by the likes of Edward Snowden have highlighted just how prevalent our surveillance society has become, just how technological are the battle lines drawn by governments and those opposing them. To get into the ‘one man’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’ argument seems to me to be simplistic and disingenuous – so I leave that to others. Instead, I’m drawn to the conclusion that there is nothing new; that however clean looking from the outside our new technologies appear to be, however disinfected the language – drone strikes that ‘take out’ ‘casualties’ that are supposedly ‘surgical’. Surveillance that looks for key words, that monitors, that intercepts, it seems that this is just the glossy cover story, beneath which the bloody mess of war doesn’t change. The ‘rough men’ as Orwell termed them, still fight, the innocent still suffer…and writers still explore those tensions.

For me, the most interesting thing about this third book has been the opportunity to develop Naomi’s character. She becomes an unwilling, but pivotal player in Gregory’s game and discovers strengths I didn’t know she had – I guess that’s the fun part about writing; discovering your characters and just what they are able to do and be and I like being surprised. I hate to know, at the start of a book, what happens in the end – though I’m getting toward the end of this new book now, so I’m hoping I figure it out sooner, rather than later!

And what next? Well, I think when this is over, my characters will deserve a rest, so I’ll let them have one and pick their story up again when they’ve had six months or so to assimilate their experiences. Hopefully, by then, they’ll have celebrated Christmas, got drunk at New Year and be planning a summer break. For now, though, it’s back to the book and figuring out how to extricate Naomi and company from the nasty corner I’ve painted them into.

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Secrets

Cowboys and Influences

I recently, finally managed to watch The Unforgiven. Yes, I know it’s a bit tardy, but sometimes that’s the way of things. I know this isn’t a typical Western in some ways, but in others, you could argue that it’s absolutely classic. The stranger, the Lone Gunfighter, the powerful cattle-baron/ corrupt businessman / general bad guy holding the small town to ransom. Even the ‘tart with a heart’, albeit in a more sophisticated form and, according to a review I read somewhere, presenting a post modernist, feminist view of women’s roles in the wild west….I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.
Yes, the women were courageous and interesting and had more in the way of character development than was usual in the genre, but I’m not sure I’d apply that particular iconography. It struck me that they were women just doing whatever they had to, to try and survive and then dealing with the consequences, pretty much as women have done and still do wherever and whenever – men too, for that matter. We all respond to circumstance, regardless of genre, and some make a better job of the whole survival thing than others and some make a better job of showing humanity than others – those two things not being mutually exclusive, by the way.

Be that as it may, it got me thinking. I grew up on a diet of Westerns. Westerns, War Films, Thrillers and Musicals and when I got old enough to stay up and watch TV after my parents had gone to bed – or, at least, old enough to sneak down without them fussing too much – Hammer Horror and the various season’s of World Cinema that BBC2 was so good at putting out way back when. I do seem to recall seeing an awful lot of very long Russian films.

But the Westerns, well they were my father’s favourite. Friday night was Virginian night. He’d get home from work and we’d watch together. If he was late home, then that was about the only time he’d break the rules and have his dinner on a tray in the living room. If he’d missed the start, as sometimes happened when the winter roads slowed his delivery van, we’ll I’d have to relate what he’s missed in fine detail, even recounting snatches of the dialogue, if I thought the exact words might be important. Looking back, I suspect this was my first taste of being a storyteller, even if it was someone else’s story.

Afterwards, we’d pick the episode apart, examine motivation and alternative solutions and even moral questions. Yes, I know, it was just a cowboy series, but it was something we did together and my dad loved his stories. Loved examining them to see what made them tick and studying the characters, discussing the dialogue at length or what a particular actor brought to a role.
Dad was a great storyteller; a spinner of yarns that would grow more elaborate with each retelling. Ironically, it was my mother who was the writer. She had the skill with words and phrasing and structure and wrote poems and children’s stories. She was never published and I think that hurt her a great deal. Though that is a story for another time, perhaps.

Films, of course, allowed even more scope for our discussions and for changing the narrative if we didn’t like it. The films we liked the best were those either the really simplistic, formulaic ones that pitched the good guy – in the white hat – against the evil cattle baron or bank robber or whatever, – wearing the black hat – or, conversely, those which contained within their narrative some crumb of moral ambiguity. That were far from simplistic. I remember that one of our favourites was James Stewart in Broken Arrow. I know whose side my dad was on in that one!

And, of course, we read the Westerns too. My dad was a particular fan of Zane Grey, but he’d devour most things if they had horses and cowboys in them. At some point I introduced him to Alistair MacLean and we read everything we could find by him and compared them to the films made of his books. What had changed, what worked, what we missed. I suppose, looking back, these were valuable first lessons in analysing narrative drive! We didn’t have that many books in the house – not that we owned, anyway. My eldest brother, an enthusiastic scavenger among the second hand book stalls that used to proliferate on Leicester market, had ensured he’d left a store of poetry and literature before he’d left home, and those books became very precious introductions to Shelley and Longfellow and Walt Whitman. I loved the words and the patterns they made long before I understood much of the content. For the rest, our local library was plundered weekly. Dad would never go inside, any more than he’d ever go into a bookshop. These were places for ‘other people’. He’d left school at fourteen and seemed to have created barriers that never really broke down. So, I became his emissary. Sometimes, I’d go to the library with Beverly, who lived next door and we’d take her Nan’s shopping trolley and come back wheeling romances – for her mum- westerns and thrillers – for dad – and whatever we happened to find for ourselves that week.
I grew up, moved away, didn’t watch so many westerns, though I’d still catch the odd one so I could talk about it and I liked the idea that I’d be settling down to watch a film that my dad would be watching too. After he died, they kind of lost their appeal. I watched The Unforgiven with my son, and we discussed it after, the way I used to with my dad and the way my own children have always done with me. I like to think it’s a habit that paid dividends; my son writes too and writes well. My daughter is a natural storyteller and is passing those skills on to her own children who are also enthusiastic tellers and writers of tales.
Cowboys and influences, Dad, lessons in narrative. It’s a bit too early in the day to raise a glass, so I lift my mug of tea in toast to you, teller of tall tales, mischief maker, lifelong spinner of so many yarns. Here’s to you.

I’m working on a new Naomi Blake novel and I’m really happy with the way it’s going, but I couldn’t shake off the strange feeling of déjà vu that kept creeping up on me at odd moments. There’s an older lady in this book called Molly and she was bothering me. Had I written something like this before? Had this character been in something else and I’d forgotten about her? And what was the African connection that kept nagging at me? And the scraps and snips of memory that Molly had about Cold War politics, but that just didn’t seem to be going anywhere so far as I could see. They were just there.

 

I went back through published novels and I wondered also, if she was just reminding me of Rina Martin. But no, Molly is her own person. Yes, she’s feisty, like Rina – I grew up around some very feisty women and I think that must have had an influence – but Molly hadn’t been conflated with Rina Martin; this was something else.

And then it hit me. I had written about Molly before, but only obliquely; she’d been someone’s wife in a novel I’d started waaay back in my writing career. Something I’d tried to put together somewhere between The Greenway (book one) and Bird (book three.) At the time I didn’t know how to make it work; the research was difficult and the location and the plot were too complex.

Once I realised this, I had to go back and find the book I’d started to write. This involved a foray into the Cupboard of Abandoned Projects. A dangerous undertaking on two counts. One being that if you open the doors, things tend to fall out, the second being that there is more than twenty years of nostalgia, ideas, memories, pictures, research notes and … well you get the idea, trapped inside. Let any of that out and it could take all day to round it up again.

It took me two days to find the old novel I’d been looking for, but there is was, on an old floppy disc, which lovely techie husband managed to sort out and put on my computer.

 

There must have been a point at which I stopped using floppies and started using a stick drive, but that, like the Time Before Internet, (TBI) seems so long ago, even though it obviously wasn’t.

 

Anyway. Molly and Edward were still there, in Brazzaville in 1961 and the notes I had made and the other characters who had been there with them and suddenly it all made sense. It’s taken years for my subconscious to figure out how to write the book I had the idea for way back then and I’d certainly never have thought of it as a Naomi book, but there it was, emerging. True, much of what I’d planned back then is utterly unusable – as it always was, hence it’s position in the Cupboard of Abandoned Projects – but touching the little bit of obsession, of inspiration, of that germ of a story I’d had was a really strange feeling. I guess all writers have tics and obsessions and themes and ideas that they circle back to from time to time and I suppose this is one of those times. I don’t expect, by the time I finish this novel, that more than a word or two of that original idea will remain, but I’m very glad I excavated it. I have rediscovered Molly and her history and those people she shared her life with and that has helped create a mystery for Naomi and Alec to solve and so I’m now happy.

Just over a week ago I Kindled for the first time. I’ve already got books on the Kindle – put there by my publisher – but this was very much my baby. PRIEST is the first in a set of four – or Tetralogy, appararantly! Nice word. Comprising the SWORDWEAVER series.  It is kind of still in the Crime genre, but there’s an air of spookiness about it and two storylines, one contemporary and one set in 890. The two timelines and sets of characters have an impact one one another, despite the time and distance separating them. It’s a book I’ve been writing for a while, revised, played around with and I’ve finally discarded the revisions and, largely, gone back to the first draft – with some small tweaks and a lot of polishing

It’s funny, the way this works out.  Everything needs work; polishing, refining, interweaving of new threads, but sometimes first impulses are the best, the freshest and the most intense and you can edit something to death. It’s a bit like over mixing the colours when painting overmix and all you end up with is mud.

Anyway, PRIEST now has a life, released into the Kindle-dom and hopefully soon on other platforms – when I finally figure out how to convert a word file into epub! And later into print on demand. It is an odd feeling though, after all these years of relying on the validation given by having a publisher, to now be doing this all on my own and without a safety net but it feels pretty good. Now I’ve just got to write the other three…

 

 

It’s not often that I’m tongue tied, but this is one of those times. Just what to write about? Friends who Blog regularly  tell me it really doesn’t matter; write about what interests me and it will all be fine. Right now that seems easier said than done!

OK, maybe I should start with the obvious. I am a writer, I tell strories, create characters and I suppose, on a good day, that is one of the things that defines me. On a bad day, when the words don’t want to flow and the characters are being contrary and the plot…what plot? Well, on those days I think of myself as anything but. Mostly, it feels ok as a definition. Sometimes it feels wonderful.

I suppose, writing Crime, it is inevitable that most of my work is quite dark. After all, its all about people doing pretty dreadful things to one another, though I hope that’s balanced by people doing some pretty special things too. I enjoy my characters even if sometimes what I think I want to do with them really turns out to be the last thing they seem inclined to oblige with.

Other than writing, artwork of all kinds is very close to my heart. I love to paint, to draw, make prints, make jewellery. It makes me fell calm and happy and alive and usually more or less does what I want it to do as long as I’m not aiming for dark or scary. It’s almost as if all that stuff goes into the writing and just leaves behind the quirky, the nonsensical. I’m inspired by the natural world, by myth and legend and also my my husband – he makes armour and I help with a lot of his research….and I don’t really care that knights didn’t actually ride on Rhino. They should have done.

 

OK, I’m going to leave it there and attempt to post this! I’m really not usually a technophobe, but this seems to be bringing out my inner Luddite!