Archive | 2017

Getting to know your characters the Helen Simkin way

I’ve said before, and a lot of people know, that I wanted (and want) to extract myself from Mandrill Press. I’m happy to go on having them publish my books, because someone has to, but I don’t like the close association with two lady writers who write what they call erotica and I can’t help regarding as soft porn. And now Mandrill Press’s rude ladies are to be joined by a third, because we’ve agreed to take on Helen Simkin, who was introduced by Susie Hopkins.
I’ll still do the admin, because that was the original agreement and because I get 10% of everything everybody else sells and, if I’m honest, they usually sell more than me. The main change will be that, as Helen Simkin moves onto the Mandrill Press website, I’ll be moving off it.

How do you get to know your characters?

I wrote a review a day or so ago of Roz Morris’s book, Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated. As I said in that review, it was one of the few books about writing that had such value that I thought I’d be rereading it in the years to come. Roz Morris has a lot to say about making actions and dialogue fit the character. It’s good stuff. Maybe it was reading that book that caused me, when Helen sent her first book in for editing (no link, because it hasn’t been edited yet and it certainly isn’t ready for publication), to ask where she got her characters from.

Pics in the public domain

When she told me the answer, it was one of those “Aha” moments, when you think, “Well, of course. What else?” Helen doesn’t write about people she knows. What she does is to browse through Public Domain picture sites and download pictures of people that capture her attention. Ultimately, she is looking for CCO images – pictures available under Creative Commons to be used for commercial purposes (like a book cover) without payment. Sometimes they need to be attributed to the person who made the picture, and sometimes they don’t. She showed me some examples:

Getting to know a stranger

Having downloaded them, Helen simply stares at them. What she’s trying to do is to get inside the head of the person she’s looking at. See what makes them tick. Imagine how they would react to this event or that remark. These are people she doesn’t know and has never even seen before she downloads the pic, but she says that, after carrying a face around in her head for a few days and imagining interactions with the person whose face it is, she has a fully rounded character that she can do something with.

Your take may vary

I can see the value of this approach, and I might very well use it, but I don’t think I’m going to react to some of those people in the way that Helen Simkin does. Look at this one:

Helen used that to inspire her first book, The Girl Next Door. I don’t know what those words mean to you, but to me they suggest someone wholesome – virginal, I suppose. What Helen Simkin, pornographer of this parish, has going on inside that sweet-looking head is something I’d prefer not to share with you.

Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated by Roz Morris

First, a disclaimer. I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and so is Roz Morris. That’s as far as the connection goes; I’ve never met her, though I’ve seen plenty of her posts and know quite a bit about what she has to say about writing. I did not get this book free; I paid to download it, and I downloaded it because I wanted to read it. I have read a number of books by ALLi members; I’ve reviewed some of them and not others. My general rule is that I don’t publish a review unless I can give the book at least three stars (I made an exception last week for the latest Louise Penny book), but for ALLi members I increase that to 4 stars – if I can’t give an ALLi member’s book at least four stars, I don’t review it. (If you are an ALLi member, you know I’ve read your book, and yet I didn’t review it, now you know the reason).
I have read a number of “How To” writing books – I imagine most writers have. Not many stick in the mind. Some were not very good at all, most were reasonably informative but forgotten after a while – and a very small number were absolute winners. This is one of those.
I write about people. I mean, I also write about events, and ideas, but people are what come first. People are what most interests me. (If I weren’t a writer, you might even call me nosy). I think that comes across in my books; a number of people have told me how invested they became in my characters. Nevertheless, I learned an enormous amount from Roz Morris’s book. She’s very good on “show, don’t tell” and she has some great stuff on how you can show things through what your characters do, what they say and how they look. She is also very good on handling minor characters, which is where a lot of people fall down. Her background as a ghost writer and editor has equipped her, first to know how to create the characters she wants to portray and then to tell other writers how to do the same.
This, obviously, is a book for writers. That doesn’t mean non-writers will get nothing out of it – even if you are not a writer, reading about how good writers create and portray characters will probably help you get more from the next book you read. But if you are a writer then, unless you are among that tiny, tiny minority who never get a character portrait wrong, you need to read this book. You need to absorb what it says. And act on it.

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Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

I very nearly missed this. First of all, Susie Steiner used to work for the Guardian and I haven’t knowingly read anything by an inmate at that home for the differently sane since the days of Saint Mugg. Then, when I read a positive review of Steiner’s latest book in the Sunday Times, I followed my usual practice of ordering the author’s first book, The Homecoming. All I can tell you about that is that the first third is very well written but not my sort of thing. I didn’t get further than the first third, so I can’t tell you any more – except that it is not a crime novel, and crime novels were what the Sunday Times review had led me to expect. I’m still not sure why I persevered. Perhaps it was because The Homecoming, though not for me, was so well written and the characters so clearly understood by the author. Anyway, persevere I did, and I bought her second book, Missing, Presumed. This IS a crime book and it’s one of the best I’ve read for some time.
This is a heavily oversubscribed genre and writers are giving us every kind of dysfunctional nutcase as a copper in the hope of triggering interest from a TV company. And many people would call Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw a dysfunctional nutcase – but, if she is, she is an exceptionally well realised dysfunctional nutcase. In fact, in many ways, this is a novel about dysfunction. What Susie Steiner gives us is:

  • A whole cast of well realised, fully understood characters
  • A well worked out plot
  • A satisfying ending that matches both plot and cast.

There are some really tasty attractions. The missing woman, Edith Hind, is a stunning model of self-absorption reminiscent of the “hero” of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Her chap is another. And as for the lonely detective sergeant’s idea of wooing, if I thought she had my address, I’d turn out the lights and lock the doors.
Steiner is at home, whether writing about the upper crust or the underclass. On the one hand, we have a surgeon to the Queen who thinks nothing of calling his old school friend and Bullingdon co-member, now Home Secretary, to get the police moving in his preferred direction. On the other, we have a mother struggling (and failing) to give her 10-year-old son even the most basic survival tools (food. Warmth. Shelter). And we don’t hesitate to accept either portrait.
An excellent book, which I warmly recommend.

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Gamache Jumps the Shark

The Nature of the Beast is the 11th book in Louise Penny’s books about Chief Inspector Gamache. I’ve read all of them. I was delighted when I found the first, and I went on to read subsequent books in the series with pleasure. But the pleasure has been fading for a while, as Louise Penny reached the point that all crime writers eventually reach when they write repetitively about one detective – the point at which readers know that the series should have stopped at least two books ago.
And that is The Nature of the Beast. Penny has done the little village of Three Pines to death, and she’s flogged the life out of all of the main characters, too. I believe that another book is scheduled. I won’t read it, and I hope with all the warmth I feel towards Louise Penny as a writer who has given me immense pleasure that she will realise that her hero’s time is done and that she should write no more about him.
Two stars. Failure. In the name of God, desist.

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The Crimson Shore by Gillian Hamer

Crimson Shore by Gillian Hamer

I read a lot of fiction other than crime fiction, but I do read a lot of crime fiction. For the most part, I don’t review the crime fiction I read, because more than 50% of it does not merit at least three stars and – with certain exceptions – I’m not prepared to review a book if I can only give it one or two stars. The fact is that a huge amount of published crime fiction is simply not up to scratch. It isn’t well edited, it isn’t well proofread, the grammar is appalling, the characters are wooden, the plot is completely unrealistic – the reasons are legion.
In the case of The Crimson Shore, none of those things is a problem. This is the first book in the Gold Detective series and the question I had to answer at the end was: is it three stars? Or is it four stars? I’ve gone for four.
The story is set in Anglesey, and it’s always good to read a book set in a place where not many books are set. The boss Detective is Amanda Gold (hence the name of the series), she has working for her a Detective Sergeant Dara Brennan who is – as the name suggests – Irish (we never find out, at least in this book, what an Irish cop is doing in Anglesey), and then there’s Detective Sergeant Kelly Jones. Kelly Jones is the sort of woman one would like to see more of <Cough> – and Brennan does.
Brennan makes a pig’s ear of his assignment, which is to lead an investigation, not least because he’s a bit of a twat, and Amanda Gold covers for him more than any reasonable boss should be expected to. If he gets there in the end, it’s as the result of a team effort and not because of individual brilliance. I appreciated the lack of that irritating cliché, the hunch-driven detective who follows wild leads because he’s a genius. Hamer doesn’t treat us with that sort of contempt.
If I had a problem with the book, it was only that the personal antipathy between DI Gold and her DCI, who would really like to see the back of her, has become another cliché of the genre, but that’s the only nit I could pick. A good solid four-star read.

For more about Gillian Hamer, click here.

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The Doom Murders by Brian O’Hare and Murder at the Roadside Cafe by Brian O’Hare

The Doom Murders by Brian O'Hare

I bought the second of these books because I bought the first. I guess that tells you how much I liked the first. Brian O’Hare writes about Northern Ireland, which is a closed-in society, in the United Kingdom but not of it and in the island of Ireland but, once again, not of it. It’s a society that would fascinate any student of human behaviour, and O’Hare explores its darker side, which is not only criminal but also religious. There is, perhaps, no place in a review like this for the reviewer’s personal views, but I’m giving mine anyway: if you want to be certain that an Irishman is going to tell you the truth, you’d better ask a Prod – but you may not like what you hear.
That is the world Chief Inspector Sheehan has to operate in and, in O’Hare’s hands, he makes a very good job of it. It’s unlikely that anyone reading one of these books (other, possibly, than a murderous psychopath) will think, ‘Hmm. Belfast. That sounds like a fun place to live.’ Well, you don’t have to move there to enjoy the books, which I recommend to you very strongly, because they are immensely enjoyable, however dark the settings, motivations and actions. The plotting is solid, the characterisation is first class, and the sense of place is conveyed with aplomb.
Full marks to Chief Inspector Sheehan. And also to my great-grandparents, who realised that Ireland was not the place for them.

For more about Brian O’Hare, click here.

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Murder by Misrule by Anna Castle

This is a really good book. I like historical fiction, but – like many other historical fiction readers – I tend to stick with the periods I know, and I don’t know Elizabethan times. Anna Castle obviously does. The details she gives – food, clothing, social relations, office-holders, and much more – are convincing. What turns this from a good book to a really good book, though, is (as it has to be) the plot, the characters, and the motivations. I have to give Murder by Misrule five out of five on each of those heads. I’m not going to provide a spoiler, but I will say that the late scene involving Trumpet was not just an entertaining surprise. It was captivating. I’m delighted to have found a new author to add to my “must read” list.

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Beatrice Stubbs ends her career in style

Bad Apples by J J Marsh

The Beatrice Stubbs series by JJ Marsh began in 2013 with Behind Closed Doors. I gave it five stars, which I really don’t like to do, but I had no choice. Four more books have followed, all worth a solid four stars, and now the series is ending with the sixth and final book, Bad Apples. I bought it the day it came out, because that’s what Beatrice Stubbs does to you, and I’m pleased to say that the series has ended as it began – with a five-star book.
The series is ending because Beatrice is one month from retirement from her Scotland Yard job and ready to depart for Devon with the long-suffering Matthew. Characters like Matthew and Adrian who have been in Stubbs’s life since the first book show up once again, reminding us that one of the strengths of Marsh’s writing is the quality of the characterisation. I don’t mean that these are deeply worked out and fully realised psychological portraits (like those of, say, Rosalind Minett) because they’re not, but they do rise above the cardboard cutout caricature. You believe in them while you’re reading about them, and that’s what counts.
Plotting has been a strong feature of these books since the first and that holds true to the very end. However, what really marks Marsh out from the rest is her ability to build a feeling of dread so that you have to read on because you are desperate to know that the thing she has made you fear is not going to happen.
I don’t know what Marsh plans to do now that Beatrice is retiring, but I am sure of two things: that she will continue to produce high-quality novels, and that I will continue to read them.

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Brian O’Hare and Gillian Hamer. New to me

Talking to young people (and anyone under 50 is young to me now), I’m often struck by the rails on which their entertainment and cultural lives run. It seems to me that people are told what is good and what they should buy — and that they accept the instruction. I remember in 1985 being in a bookshop and picking up Every Day is Mother’s Day by an author I’d never heard of: Hilary Mantel. I was bowled over. Stunned. I grabbed Vacant Possession when it came out a year later, and I’ve since read everything Mantel has published. Nutty as a fruitcake* she may be, but she’s one of the very few authors for whom I would ever be prepared to buy a hardback if getting the paperback or e-book version meant waiting.
Julian Barnes is another. Once again, I found him in a bookshop when I was browsing and came on Flaubert’s Parrot and, once again, I’ve since read everything he’s written.
It doesn’t seem to me that writers are being discovered today in that same browsing way – but I’m probably wrong. (I have been wrong, you know. Oh yes. I remember the occasion distinctly).
When I think about it, it was probably within the same 12 month period that I discovered both of those writers. And I’ve had a similar pleasure recently, but in a period of only two weeks. Neither Gillian The Doom Murders by Brian O'HareHamer nor Brian O’Hare is a brand-new writer in the way that Mantel and Barnes were when I found them, but they are new to me. I’d never read anything by either of them, and in the last fortnight I’ve read The Doom Murders and Murder at the Roadside Café, the first two books in the Inspector Sheehan series by Brian O’Hare, and Crimson Shore, the first inCrimson Shore by Gillian Hamer the Gold Detectives series by Gillian Hamer. I’ll be posting reviews of both of these books shortly, here and on Amazon and Goodreads, but right now I just wanted to open the window and shout for the benefit of anyone listening:

If you like crime fiction, then here are two writers you really need to add to your preferred author list.

They are not like each other, and nor do they mimic the styles of other crime writers. They are, in other words, originals. What they both possess is a mastery of the English language and an ability to grab the reader’s attention and not let go.
My brother-in-law has a saying, “As far-fetched as a bucket of shite from China,” which has led – in our house at least – to the rather more polite expression, “Chinese buckets,” and none of these three books is entirely free from a touch of Chinese buckets, which reinforces the idea that here are two very good writers. When you read the Midsomer Murders** books by Caroline Graham (and, even more, when you watch the TV series) some of the plots are so far-fetched that all you can do is laugh. O’Hare and Hamer also present plot ideas that sometimes stretch the imagination – but the writing is so good that you accept them without question.
More on these two shortly.

*I’ll take back that remark about Hilary Mantel being differently sane, not least for fear of finding myself on the wrong end of a lawsuit, and simply say what I said about writer Ellie Stevenson – that the inside of her head must be a very interesting place to be.

**By the way, if you’ve watched the Midsomer Murders TV shows but not read the books, you might find it instructive to do so, because it tells you a lot about how books can be modified when adapted for TV. To take only one example, TV’s Sergeant Troy is an eligible bachelor who is something of a feminist and always respectful towards women. Right? Well, in the books, Sergeant Troy is a rather different character. For a start, he’s married. And, in one of the earlier books, while he’s making love to his wife – and you can scrub that; he isn’t making love to her, he’s having sex with her – he tells her, “There’s no need to wake up if you don’t want to.” Does that sound like the Sergeant Troy TV has you accustomed to? No, I thought not.