Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Making it up

A little light reading in the name of research...
I’m a writer. Making it up is what I do. Simple, eh?

But it isn’t so simple. Unless you write fantasy or science fiction, making things up still has to be achieved against a framework of fact and accuracy. If it isn’t, you lose your reader, and the last thing you want is someone pointing out all the flaws in your plot, even when the characters themselves are entirely your invention and you can do whatever you like with them. Readers like things to be correct — apparently Agatha Christie got letters complaining that she had the wrong timetable for the Orient Express.

I do check my ferry timetables, but sometimes the kind of fact you’re working with is just too…well, secret. In my current work in progress, a romantic suspense, my villain is an undercover policeman, my hero is his handler and my heroine is the villain’s former girlfriend.

Undercover policing is, by definition, covert. You aren’t supposed to know how it works. Take the definition further: if it’s successful, it remains secret so that we only ever find out about it when it goes wrong and someone is outed by a newspaper or a pressure group. Which means that the available facts are only part of the story.

Most of my research is based upon websites from pressure groups, along with a fascinating and informative book on undercover policing by a couple of investigative journalists. So far, so relevant, especially because the things that go on under the noses of the public are certainly the kinds of things you wouldn’t believe would happen. Talk about a licence to plot.

After a couple of not-very-thrilling papers on codes of practice and reports of the findings of police inspections (yawn) had furnished me with some of the basic information, I ran into trouble. While sources such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the College of Policing are full of endless information on the legal framework, they don’t answer the questions that a writer needs to know.

My list of research questions is long and, to date, largely unanswered. If an undercover officer’s handler is in contact with that officer once or twice a week, what does he (or she) do for much of the day? Is he (or she) a uniformed officer or not? Work out of a police station? Work odd hours? (I did learn that the handler gets paid the same as the undercover officer, danger money and all.) Who keeps the safe house safe? Who has the keys to it? Who gets to use it and why and when? I could go on.

After much fruitless trawling of the internet, I sighed, read the accounts of what actually happens, looked in the newspapers to see some of the mind-boggling things our police really get up to… and decided that if I don’t know how things work, I’ll just make them up.

Jennifer Young

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Children’s books aren’t just for children - or are they? By Cally Phillips

This week I’m pleased to introduce Cally Phillips of Ayton Publishing. Cally is on a mission to revive interest in Scottish author S R Crockett, once a hugely successful novelist whose books sold in the hundreds of thousands. Mary Smith

If you were a child over 40 years ago, as I was, then your reading material might well have included quite a few 19th century ‘classic’ children’s stories. I was brought up on a diet of E. Nesbit and Noel Streatfield as well as the more modern Alan Garner and Alison Uttley. I was a reading omnivore ranging freely from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens. I read and re-read Arthur Ransome and Allan Campbell MacLean and Robert Louis Stevenson (he was considered a children’s author when I was a child!).

I have had major book culls to my library several times in my life but I cannot let go of many of my beloved children’s books, from The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) to Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) and A Dog So Small (1962) and many more besides. They are more than just books I’ve read. They are part of my childhood and in a way part of who I am.  That’s part of the beauty of books isn’t it? I find it interesting that in those days whether they were set in the 1950s or 1850s didn’t matter so much to me as whether I made friends with the characters! I hadn’t bought into the cult of either ‘classic’ or ‘new.’  It’s taken me a long time to escape from both of those cults back to a more free way of reading. But that’s another story.

As a reader my first love is probably character. I’ve always sought out characters to befriend. I especially like characters who appear to be cut in the cloth of their authors. That way I feel a sense of commonality not just with the fictional character but the very real author. I like authors who play with the boundaries between character, narrator and author. One such is S.R.Crockett.

As a publisher my goal is to share my ‘friends’ with others who might enjoy their company but have never met them because they don’t hang out on the ‘bestseller’ shelves. These are not friends for ‘followers of fashion’ but for people who have history, adventure and romance in their souls.

This year I’ve published all seven of Crockett’s stories for children as The Rainbow Crockett series. To categorise these as books for children is disingenuous. No self -respecting modern child would want to read them. Yet in their day they were bestsellers for years on end (especially in the lucrative Christmas market). If they were furniture, today they’d be described (along with Nesbit, Streatfield and even Garner) as a sort of ‘distressed shabby’ in style, certainly not high fashion. In all cases I suggest this is no small part of their charm – they take us to a place that no longer exists except in our memory. 

Certainly today, The Rainbow Crockett stories are more suitable for adults who have children/grandchildren, or who were children themselves around half a century ago.  They are also interesting for people who want to know about domestic minutiae of the nineteenth century (I’m guilty as charged on that one.) 

Six of the stories feature the barely fictional Picton-Smith family.  Based on Crockett’s own children, his close observation is key to both the humour and the charm of the books. This is a man who knew and loved his children. Warts and all. 

Crockett’s eldest daughter Maisie is the nominal heroine of the two ‘Sweetheart’ stories. The first sees Crockett and Sweetheart cycling the countryside on a giant tricycle and the second is a ‘spoof’ diary kept by Sweetheart through her childhood. 

The Red Cap books feature the Picton-Smith children struggling to read Walter Scott. Much of the humour of the stories lies not in the Scott excerpt/adaptations (which Crockett breathes admirable life into) but the responses and antics of the children themselves. Even if you can’t thole Scott (as I’m afraid I can’t) don’t worry, the Picton-Smiths steal the scenes admirably.

Two books showcase Sir Toady Lion. Crockett’s second son George is the blueprint for one of my all-time favourite fictional characters.  He gets his name from his inability to pronounce Coeur de Lion and he steals every scene he enters. He is a force of nature. I’ll go so far as to say it’s worth reading the Rainbow Crockett simply for the antics of Toady.

The final story, published a decade after Crockett’s death, is a semi-autobiographical teenage rites of passage boys own adventure story. Written from the juvenile perspective it is funny as well as informative and gives a real insight into the young Crockett and some of his contemporaries – MacGeorge the artist and Penman the engineer – when they were still teenagers.  Think Adrian Mole for the 1870s.

I hope I’ve given you a brief introduction to some of my fictional friends. If you enjoyed the company of The Bastable children when you were a child, you will find a whole new set of friends in the Picton-Smiths. If you like boy’s own adventure, Sir Toady will take you on a couple. If you like Stevenson you might even bridge the gap and try some of Crockett’s novels for adults. I think we lose something if we stick to rigid classification of books and I suggest simply that The Rainbow Crockett offers great stories for people who still remember what it felt like reading ‘great stories’ when they were children.  

You can buy The Rainbow Crockett series in paperback direct from the Galloway Raiders online store HERE where you’ll also find many more of my ‘friends’ just waiting to while away some happy hours with you. And if you’re really adventurous you might want to take part in either High Tea for SRC or Get on Your Bike with SRC… just follow the links.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The world's first 'wedding novel'? by Jenny Harper

Bride Emily Fletcher with groom Graeme Crossley and myself,
in the gardens at Greywalls Hotel after the ceremony.
Photo courtesy Armands Sprogis.
Today I don't even need to ponder about what to write – my topic is topmost in my mind and will probably remain there for the next few weeks.

Some months ago, writer friend Kate Blackadder emailed me an unusual request, received through Edinburgh Writers. She'd been contacted by a bride-to-be in East Lothian, she told me, who was looking for a novelist to write the story of her wedding. Was I interested? She had thought of me because a) my Heartlands series of novels is set in East Lothian and b) I also have a background as a journalist.

Was I interested? Not at all! Far too difficult. How would you do it? Besides, writing for a bride? Aren't they all picky, hysterical, demanding? I made myself a cuppa and wandered around my kitchen. I looked at the email again. Sipped my coffee. Had a third look. The idea was worming its way into my head. What if ...

What if the bride was OK? Could I use this to promote my novels? How could I write it? How much to charge?

Before I could think too hard, I emailed Kate to say I'd be willing to discuss the project.

A few months later, I find myself with a notebook full of jottings. I've interviewed the cake maker, the florist, the chef, the hotel's assistant manager, the hairdresser, the photographer and at least thirty guests. My publisher has contacted the Press and today's Sunday Herald features a full half page article on 'another first for Scotland'.

Wow. No pressure.

Emily Fletcher is an amazing young woman. From a family of farmers and racing drivers, she is a former racing driver herself. A twin, she has been something of a rebel and has turned her hand to not a few careers before settling into property development and – yesterday – marriage. Crucially from my point of view, she is not only excited about what I will make of her big day, but also professes to be very relaxed about it. I have no clear guidelines, no word count to achieve, a loose time scale. I hope I have read her right on all this because I have little idea about how I'm going to tackle the writing.

Despite the Sunday Herald's take, it won't be a novel, though it will almost certainly be a book, because Emily would like it printed in book form (probably with a few photos) to send to her guests as a memento. But it can't be a report either, that wouldn't feel right. Guests may be disguised by pseudonyms, but they will be real people. There's a wealth of material – but still the dilemma: how to present it?

Ideas on a postcard please ...