Posts Tagged London

Handling real-life disasters sensitively in fiction – an interview

Novelists are sculptors of real-life, but some have to be particularly sensitive to their raw materials. Especially when that material is events that have made headlines in the news – natural disasters, wars, or terrorist incidents.

That’s what I want to explore today. You might recognise my interviewee – Jane Davis, who has hosted me on her Book Club series and was one of my co-conspirators in the Women Writing Women box set. In her eighth novel, Smash All The Windows, she tackles the aftermath of a fictional disaster, for which she drew on the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989.

In this interview we talk about

  • Why the story’s time period was an important choice
  • Why she created a fictional situation instead of writing about an actual event
  • How she created an authentic experience
  • Sensitivity issues

Roz Your novel was sparked by the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. What was it that grabbed your attention?

Jane It was the press’s treatment of the families. They thrust microphones at family members as they emerged from the courtroom and put it to them that, now the original ruling had been overturned, they could finally get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?

[For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame, and victims became scapegoats. It would be 27 years before the record was set straight.]

Roz But you didn’t end up writing about Hillsborough. You created your own fictional incident. Why was that?

Jane You have to treat recent history with respect, especially in cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on their faces was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. And what could I add to the material that’s already been produced? Jimmy McGovern’s powerful 1996 TV dramatisation formed part of the protest before the original verdict was overturned. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and eye-witness reports. And he had blessing of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story?

Actually, have you tackled recent history in your own writing?

Roz I use a recent disaster in Ever Rest. In 2014 there was an avalanche that killed 28 people and caused lasting ripples through the climbing community. It’s actually not the focus of my story; it happens on the periphery. Even so, I was careful to research every detail. I read the eyewitness accounts, watched real-time footage and interviews. Much of the information I gathered wasn’t needed for the book, but it allowed me to write with confidence and respect.

Avalanche in the Himalayas – pic by Chagai at English Wikipedia

Jane And that’s why researching your subject matter and timeline is so important. Even if you only touch on it briefly, it would be a crime not to be aware of it.

Roz In my ghostwriting days I went much further. I created earthquakes and mass floods, and it’s a huge undertaking. The amount of factual research is enormous. First there’s the event itself, the special responses of bodies like the police, ambulance and fire brigade; then all the other surprising possibilities that make a gripping story well beyond the obvious. I’ve seen you remark on Facebook that this book darn near killed you and I can well believe it. Tell me about creating your disaster in logistical and practical terms. What did you draw on?

Jane Research – obviously – but also personal experience. The previous year, travelling by Tube to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. I was totally unprepared for how fast the escalator was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.

In terms of research, as I’m sure you’re aware, creating a fictional disaster doubles your workload. Firstly I researched Hillsborough and unpicked the elements that led to the tragedy. Facilities which dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Someone in management who was new to the job. Elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way.’) Risk assessments that failed to consider that several things might go wrong at the same time and how multiple casualties might be dealt with. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones, and then as lies were spread.

Then, having chosen my setting, I set about researching how an accident might happen in an Underground Station, and the difficulties that the emergency services would encounter, which meant looking at accident investigations from Kings Cross and London terrorist attacks. I documented everything I could about the vulnerabilities of the system and weak spots, and that meant tracking down reports on transport policy, overcrowding, the impact on health, recommendations that have not been implemented… the list goes on.

Roz So you created a story about a disaster on an escalator in a London Tube station? What then?

Jane After that, I plotted my timeline. It took over a decade of legal wranglings before the Hillsborough families even managed to get their hands on paperwork to help them build their case, but I didn’t want the timeframe to be as long as 27 years. Somehow, to suggest my fictional characters suffered as much as the Hillsborough families seemed disrespectful. But to reflect the issues that existed at the time of Hillsborough, the story had to happen before the explosion of the internet, when voices weren’t heard as they would be today and photographs wouldn’t be posted on Twitter.

Roz The expanding internet. A boon for research; a bane for plotting. How many storytellers have wound their timelines back for that very reason? But I digress. You then created a character to personify the fight…

Jane Yes. When most injustices are overturned, there’s usually an individual who worked away tirelessly to construct a case. With Hillsborough, it was Phil Scraton, a professor of criminology. With the disaster in my book, it was Eric, a law student. He’s the outsider, someone who arrives at a point when the families have all but given up. His conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight in them.

Roz You also have to grapple with a lot of human stories – and in a sensitive way. You create characters who experience the worst because that makes the most drama, but you must handle everything with respect and not appear to exploit it. Can you talk about that?

Jane The question of whether it’s possible to exploit a fictional character is such an interesting one! But yes, the human drama is what’s going to grip the reader, so characterisation is crucial. You have to translate the emotional fallout with delicacy and honesty, allowing your characters to retain their dignity. I wanted to show the terror and the horror of the disaster, without making anything gratuitous. So how do you go about that? I write in close third person from multiple viewpoints and I think this lends itself to a very personal relationship with my characters. I also do a little of what I call ‘method writing’. If I need to write a tired and emotional scene, I try to write the first draft when I’m tired and emotional. If my character has had a drink or two, you get the picture…

Roz That’s not unlike the ‘musical method writing’ used by many of the guests on my Undercover Soundtrack series. We’re all searching for the truth in these emotional scenes. What about the scenes of the actual disaster?

Jane My choice of setting was deliberate. I suffer from claustrophobia and anxiety and so travelling in rush hour on a Tube train is something I have to do, but I struggle with. I hope that I’ve managed to translate my feelings of claustrophobia onto the page. As for the disaster itself, I show the various characters travelling towards it, and so we see the build-up from different angles, but I tend to cut away from the disaster itself quite suddenly. If you create the right atmosphere and rack up the tension, the reader is perfectly capable of imagining what happened next.

In the book, I have my character Maggie ask my character Jules, who is a sculptor, if the work they are planning to make for his art exhibition is going to be too shocking, and he says, ‘It is going to be just shocking enough. You cannot make art and then apologise for it.’ So I suppose my question to you would be where would you draw the line? What would be too shocking?

Roz A good question. Sometimes understatement is beautifully devastating. Graham Greene described a shooting as ‘a thud like a gloved hand striking a door’. I think you have to do what is true to your style.

On the subject of shock, it’s now not unusual for authors to have a sensitivity edit, done by a person with more direct experience of the issue or that kind of event. Did you have a reader who performed this for you? Maybe more than one because you’ll have several human issues like post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, marital difficulties… The human fallout of such an event is endless. How did you get to the stage where you felt confident you’d appreciated the situation fully and been fair?

Jane I hadn’t heard the term ‘sensitivity edit’ until a few weeks ago, when I shared an interview on Twitter from a sensitivity editor, so no, I haven’t sought out that kind of professional help. But you’re so right. Many lives are blighted by an incident on this scale. I chose to focus on five key characters and the people they lost.

Aberfan cemetery – pic by Stephen McKay

Hillsborough had already given me long-term view, but while I was writing the book, the 50-year anniversary of Aberfan took place. Aberfan was a Welsh mining village where a slag heap collapsed on the village school. Because the world’s media descended on this small community, there’s a wealth of photographic evidence – it’s almost obscene. And if we measure the long-term impact of large-scale disaster in terms of medical records, we see it all here. Alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, a rate of minor ailments that far exceeds the norm, mental health issues, suicide, premature death. I actually wonder if I have gone far enough, but then you return to that question of exploitation.

I also use a team of about 35 beta readers who come from wide circles. They always surprise me but, unbeknown to me, one of my team had survived the Hatfield rail crash. That discovery led to a valuable exchange about survivor guilt and flashbacks. Particularly pertinent were the what ifs? ‘If I’d asked him to get me a coffee, he wouldn’t be here.’

Another beta reader had suffered a fall down the escalators at Euston Station two years ago and is still walking with a stick (in fact, I’m gathering a file of escalator incidents – falls seem extremely common). She found my descriptions of the fall terrifying because, of course, she superimposed her own experience over what she read on the page.

Roz Add me to your list of escalator casualties. I have a triangular hole in my shin from a mishap at Knightsbridge Tube.

Jane Another one! And I’m hearing about them all the time.

But another beta reader thought that the way I depicted a pregnant woman was too generic. She exercised right up to the birth of her first child – she had climbed a mountain two weeks beforehand and had been jogging a couple of days before the birth. Of course, pregnancy is something I have no experience of, so her input was extremely helpful.

My choice of Dan Holloway as a structural editor also served me well. He asked probing questions like, ‘Is that really the first thing you want your readers to know about this character’?

Wearing your editor hat, I assume authenticity is something you comment on?

Roz I do! I’ve developed a nose for authenticity, or rather, its opposite. Sometimes I can comment from my own knowledge – for years I’ve done editing shifts on medical magazines, so I have a wide experience of mental and physical health issues, and also of the professionals who treat them. Also, ghostwriting gave me other surprising life-skills because I had to write convincingly about things I hadn’t ever done. That’s made me an obsessive checker. When I’m editing a manuscript, even if I don’t know the subject, I can usually tell if it has been researched thoroughly. Of course, it’s harder to know if a writer has made a wrong assumption, so there’s no substitute for befriending an actual expert.

What other obstacles did you encounter?

Jane The main problem was that time refused to stand still. While I was writing my book, disasters kept on happening. News broadcasts and front pages of newspapers were dominated by terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017, the London Bridge attack happened. Would it be insensitive to continue to write about an incident that took place within a real life disaster? Part of me said yes. On the other hand, I saw the aftermath. The cars parked diagonally across city streets, the bouquets of red roses propped up against the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries. I had to make conscious decisions about whether I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.

Roz That’s a perennial problem – the book that keeps growing in scope. Life keeps adding possibilities. You have to decide when you’ve got enough. Which seems a good place to end!

You can tweet Jane @janedavisauthor , find her website and blog here https://jane-davis.co.uk , find her books here      , connect with her on Facebook here. Smash all the Windows Universal Link is here.

And if that snippet about Ever Rest piqued your interest, you can find out more in my newsletter, including adventures like this:

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments

Indie authors: are you making these mistakes with your print books? How to look professional on the page

bookshop 12 april 006 sml

Contents pages can go very wrong. See below

This Friday, around 50 indie authors (including yours truly) will gather in Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road to showcase their books as part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival. We’ll see some swish productions from experienced selfpublishers – but not all indie paperbacks look quite so slick.

Peter Snell, my bookseller friend and co-host of So You Want To Be A Writer at Surrey Hills Radio, is a staunch supporter of indie authors – but he often shows me paperbacks with rookie mistakes that scream ‘amateur’. So here’s our checklist of goofs and gaffes – and how to make sure your book passes muster.

Front matter
Some indie books launch straight into the text, which looks rather underdressed. Why?

Look at the opening pages of any print book and you’ll see the following:

  • a half-title page – this shows the title on its own, or the title and author name in the text font, or a brief (one-paragraph) introduction to the author and the book
  • a copyright page
  • a full title, maybe echoing the cover typography, with author name and the publisher imprint
    a page that lists other works by the author
  • contents page
  • start of text
half-title pg lf3

Half-title page of Lifeform Three, showing a teaser for the novel’s content and a reviewer’s reaction. This is the first page the reader sees, so a good position for endorsements and a tantalising summary.

You might also have a dedication page before the text starts or a foreword (which is an introduction not written by the author).

On the other hand, some indie books dither around too much before the text, with pages of acknowledgements and biographical material.
The reader wants to get on with the book. So front matter should be concise and useful – eg contents pages, of which more in a minute. Contents pages go very wrong.

Right or left?
Certain pages have to be on the right, others on the left. Here’s that order again:

  • half-title – right
  • copyright page – left
  • full title – right
  • other works, dedication etc – left
  • contents – right
  • start of text – right

Yes, that’s two rights. If necessary, insert a blank page so that the text starts on the right. After chapter 1, though, you can start new chapters on a left. You’d have to go through mad contortions otherwise. But if your book is divided into sections (like My Memories of a Future Life) you want those to start on a right.

bookshop 12 april 014 sml

A well-designed and useful contents page

Contents pages
You don’t usually need a contents page in a novel. Does the reader need to know that chapter 11 starts on page 49? I draw your attention to Exhibit A at the start of this post.

If your chapters have titles of their own, you might list them to whet the reader’s appetite. But it’s not compulsory, and novels, memoir and narrative non-fiction don’t usually need contents pages.

Instructional and reference non-fiction, on the other hand, definitely needs a list of contents. Here’s an example of one that is helpful to the reader and also a good appetiser for the book. (It’s Reports from Coastal Stations by Geoff Saunders.)

Who’s the author?
Some indie books fail to give any information about the author. Readers like this context – who the author is, where they live, how many books they’ve written. If the book is set in a special world (eg the circus), this is where you reveal you were the offspring of trapeze artists before you ran away to study accountancy. If you’re writing non-fiction, readers need to know why you have the temerity to bother them with your opinions.

LF3 authorbiog back

Biographical details on the back cover of Lifeform Three

You might put this in the front matter, if you can keep it brief. Or it might be on the back cover. But don’t miss it out.

Speaking of back covers…
Back covers need to look properly furnished. Make sure you have

  • a punchy summary
  • an enticing quote, if possible
  • author details, and preferably a picture

Other sundry howlers that stop your book being taken seriously:

  •  white paper stock for fiction, memoir or narrative non-fiction (better to choose the cream-coloured paper)
  • squashed typesetting and tiny print – authors do this to reduce the pagecount and save costs, but it makes the book a chore to read (there’s more here on formatting your book for print)
  • narrow margins, either around the edges or in the gutters (the central margin). Again these decrease readability, and if the gutter is too narrow, you have to break the spine to read the book.
  • amateurish or unnecessary artwork. Tables and charts might be necessary in non-fiction, but probably aren’t in adult fiction. Maps and family trees might be helpful for certain genres of fiction, and facsimiles of handwritten notes or other ephemera might funk up a YA novel. But you might not need your aunt’s watercolours, unless a lot of your straight-talking friends agree they add to the book’s charm. (They usually don’t.) And covers are a whole subject by themselves. (More about covers here.)
  • lack of an ISBN – CreateSpace and Lightning Source require an ISBN, and CS will issue you with one if necessary. But Lulu or local printers will let you print without them. Most readers probably wouldn’t notice if your book lacks an ISBN, but it really, really annoys Peter, who is still reeling at the author who had regained the rights to her work and printed 1000 copies without obtaining an ISBN. (There’s more here about ISBNs.)
  • Peter also grumbles about books that are in a big or unusual format that won’t fit on his shelves. And cut-outs or holes in the jackets, because they catch on other books and get torn. (They probably also cost you more.) He does, however, approve of French flaps, which make a book more solid, though they’re not standard issue and most people won’t mind if you don’t have them.

So, to sum up. The well-dressed print book:

  • has a complete set of front matter that is concise and helpful
  •  follows the conventions of right and left
  • has a contents page only if necessary
  • gives information about the author
  • has an informative (and enticing) back cover
  • doesn’t cram the page with type

Have I missed anything out? Or do you have any questions? Head for the comments!
If you’re in or around London next Friday, come and say hello at the Indie Author Fair, which is part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival in association with the London Book Fair. Entry is free, though you need to register and print out a ticket. More here. If you’re further flung (and even if you’re not) you can take part in Indie ReCon, from April 15 to April 17 – an online festival of indie movers, shakers, experts, veterans, trailblazers, and the odd person who was surprised to find themselves volunteered. You’ll find seminars, live chats and roundtables and …. oh just click this link. http://indierecon.org/indierecon-events/ To wet your appetite, here’s a video discussion from last year in which a few authorly types talk about how we tame our creative muse.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 Comments

‘Music is fuel to take me where the characters go’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Yasmin Selena Butt

for logoMy guest this week swears that if her chest hadn’t obscured her view of her guitar, she’d have been a rock star. Some of her early life decisions were dictated by the need to be connected to music, and when she wrote her crime novel set in a London burlesque club, she had two flavours of playlist – angry and dark. Fiction nearly became reality when she had a near-death experience at her book launch – which I was startled to hear because I remember when her cheerful invitations were circulating on Facebook. Thankfully she lived to tell the tale. She is Yasmin Selena Butt and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

‘Love starts with a face’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Barry Walsh

for logoWhen this week’s guest was on his final rewrite, Adele’s Someone Like You was playing from every radio. He says it seemed to reinforce the story he was polishing – a tale of first love, the transition into puberty and the emotional and physical barriers of the adult world. He says he’d been scribbling notes for years, but first felt emboldened to write the novel – based on his childhood memories of 1960s London – when a Neil Young song convinced him he was sitting on a story. He is Barry Walsh, the novel is The Pimlico Kid and he’s on the Red Blog talking about its Undercover Soundtrack.

GIVEAWAY Barry is offering a signed print copy of The Pimlico Kid. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments

Create your characters from different moulds

58671977_0e83de32ff_zI’m somewhat preoccupied with characters as I’m finishing NYN 2: Bring Characters To Life. I’ve recently read two novels with several main characters – one that made them real and the other that didn’t. I thought it would be interesting to compare the key differences.

The former is Ruth Rendell’s The Keys To The Street, which uses several points of view, all with their own internal identity. The shaky one is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It follows eight separate people but they all sound exactly the same.

Briefly, The Keys To The Street is about a handful of characters in Regent’s Park, London, whose lives intersect over one summer. The Slap begins as an extended family gathers for a suburban barbeque. One of the children gets out of hand and one of the other parents gives it a slap. There is uproar and the novel explores the ripples.

In both, the narration is close third person, so although the ‘I’ pronoun isn’t used we’re following the thoughts and feelings of each individual.

Rendell is good at characters who sound distinct on the page. Their vocabulary, thought processes and speech rhythms make them into separate, recognisable people. Tsiolkas’s dialogue, both quoted and internal, sounds like it all comes from the same person.

nynfiller2Culture and social milieu

Characters might sound similar because they come from the same culture and social milieu. But even so, there can be individual variation from the characters’ different natures. In the simplest terms, some would be introvert and some extravert. Some will see the glass as half-full. The emotions and urges behind their speech and thoughts would not be the same.

In The Slap they all have similar levels of aggression and introspection. In The Keys To The Street, there are several characters who are homeless or nearly homeless, but each has their own internal landscape. Some feel persecuted, some are tragically numbed.

Indeed, characters in the same milieu have many reasons not to be similar. They might have an assortment of occupations, which would make them tackle a variety of life problems and people.

In The Slap we potentially have these, but none of the differences are used. The TV scriptwriter sounds just like the civil servant and the businessman. In The Keys To The Street, the girl who works in the museum has different daily influences from the former butler who walks everyone’s dogs. These environments shine through their vocabulary and the comparisons they use. Their back stories are also vastly different, which affect how much each of them will trust other characters. Again, the girl in the museum believes good of people whereas the dog-walker suspects nasty motives in everyone.

Behaviour in extremis

Sequences of anger, sex and other kinds of extremis should tear the characters’ masks off. They should show us who they really are.

In The Slap, all the characters default to one pattern of behaviour when upset or emotional. They want to smash things or people. They brood on conversations and  wish they had hit the offending person, pummelled their faces, grabbed them by the hair and shouted obscenities at them. When they curse, which they all do plenty of, they use the same words. Readers really notice when all the characters have the same curse personality. When they have sex, they all have the same preferences and urges.

In The Keys To The Street, the characters react according to their personalities, even when roused to the same emotion. When angry, the mentally unbalanced drug addict uses violence. The dog-walker resorts to blackmail or spits (or worse) in his employer’s tea. The museum curator’s former boyfriend is also violent, but immediately regretful. One emotion: three individual ways to handle it.

Other private moments

Other private moments can be very revealing. In The Slap, many of the characters are inclined to look at their reflection or a body part and think about their lives. In The Keys To The Street, the characters have their diverse ways of reflecting. Many of them don’t need to manufacture a specific thinking activity; they do something from their usual routine. This makes their reflective scenes different from each other. The dog walker collects his animals and does his job, meanwhile plotting and fulminating. The violent psychotic takes crack. The tragic down-and-out goes for his long walks, pushing the barrow that contains his possessions. What they do to get thinking time can be ways to differentiate their souls.

If you’re interested in either of these books, here’s Guardian Book Club on The Keys To The Street

And here’s a review of The Slap in The London Review of Books

Thanks for the pic r h

Have you read other novels that handle several point-of-view characters and differentiate them well? Or conversely, novels that do it badly? Let’s discuss!

GIVEAWAY On the Red Blog, Andrew James is giving away 2 signed copies of his novel Blow Your Kiss Hello. For a chance to win, he wants you to reply or tweet where the book title comes from. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Find it on the Red Blog now

nyn2covsmlIf you liked this post, you might like NAIL YOUR NOVEL: Bring Characters To Life, coming in May. Find out as soon as it’s released by signing up for my newsletter. Latest edition of this random and infrequent publication can be found here    

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

30 Comments

Stories are like sharks – to stay alive they must keep moving

A simple trick for writing a compelling story  

One day I want to write a story that runs backwards. I’ll start with the protagonists in a mire of disaster, and then tick back through time, unpicking their mistakes, until they are blithe and bonny.

So I devour all I can about backwards narratives, and the other day I was listening to the actress Kristen Scott Thomas interviewed about her part in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. The play is a love triangle; husband, wife and wife’s lover. The first scene takes place after the affair has ended and the final scene ends when the affair begins.

Aside from indulging my long-range planning, her comments about playing the part clarified something fundamental that writers do when we create any story – backwards or forwards.

Scott Thomas said that Betrayal’s chronology stripped away the tools the actors normally used to carry them through a performance. Usually, the actor plugs in at scene one, and what they experience there carries them, changed, into the next one. This domino taps that domino. In each scene their character learns something, commits to something, discards something, and that sets them up for the next. Changing all the time.

This relentless momentum, the decisions and acts that cannot be undone, the words that cannot be unsaid, are the pulse that gives a story its life. It’s like a shark who must keep moving otherwise it will die.

That change in every scene is what the actor looks for. It might be gigantic or it might be just a grain. And it is what the writer must look for too.

Thank you, Mrpbps, for the picture. Does each of your scenes have that momentum of forwards change? Do you think there are any situations where a scene can coast without anything changing? Let’s discuss!

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

41 Comments