Archive | 2020

Life is Precarious

Life is precarious, and our hold on it uncertain. That’s always been true, but it seems that people have forgotten it. We have medication that keeps people alive with conditions that, only a few years ago, would have killed them. It’s easy to believe that threats to life have been overcome; those in their teens today may even believe that they’ll live for ever. They won’t.

Life in the eighteenth century was a lot less certain

A lot of research went into my James Blakiston series, some of it to do with the ages at which people died and what it was that carried them off. Illnesses that we now know as TB and flu were rife. Here is a passage from the first book in the series, A Just and Upright Man:

On the fourth of February in a winter that was taking no prisoners, Blakiston might have expected to find everyone clustered around the fire – and that is exactly where the aged Benjamin was, being fussed over by his wife who was twenty years younger than he was. His two sons, however, were hard at work in the biting cold. Blakiston watched them, struck by the single-minded intensity with which both young men worked. Then he returned to the farm house to take a dish of tea by the fire with the old man and discuss how they would manage the change from a three crop to a four crop rotation.
As he prepared to leave, Blakiston said, ‘You have two good sons.’
‘Aye, Master. They’re good lads, both of them.’
‘It is a pity that both cannot inherit the tenancy. The younger boy…Tom, is it?’
‘Aye, Master. Tom is the second born.’
‘From what I have seen he would make a better farmer than many who are already tenants. But it cannot be. This farm is not large enough to divide. We need bigger farms, not smaller.’
‘Well, Master, God’s will is God’s will.’
‘Do you say so? Tell me, Benjamin Laws, have you any other children beyond those two?’
‘A daughter, Master. Henrietta. We call her Hetty. She is a scullery maid at the Castle.’
‘And how comes it that a man of advanced years has sons so young?’
‘Twas the influenza, Master.’
Ah. I am sorry.’
‘Aye, Master. I had a wife and five bairns before what you see me with today. And then the influenza came, in 1735 I think it was, and in three weeks all were gone but me.’
‘A sad story.’
‘It was the same for many.’
‘And that, too, was God’s will?’
Blakiston saw the startled expression in the old man’s eyes and realised he had better take this no further. ‘Well, Uncle, I shall keep you from sleep no longer.’

That was how life was, and the people knew it. Cholera and typhoid were other killers and it was not so many years before that that plague halved the population of England. And these killers did not respect rank – a king or a bishop had almost as much chance of dying as some farm labourer in a hovel.

Those 18th-century killers are still at work

That isn’t the case now, and it could be that the reason that Covid-19 is getting so much attention when tuberculosis (and, if it comes to that, measles) kills far more is that most of the people dying from TB are not white and not middle-class and have very little buying power and are therefore of little interest to our western media. If the virus serves no other purpose, perhaps it might be useful in bringing home to all of us a lesson that, once, did not need to be taught: that life is precarious and our hold on it tenuous.

Passing the time in self-isolation

If you are observing self-isolation, you may find that this is a very good time to spend with a good book. You’ll find the first in the James Blakiston series here and the second here. If historical fiction is not your bag, and you’d like to take a look at the way people live now, try this one or this one.

Where (and How) Does a Book Start?

This is not “Where do you get your ideas?”

It can take a long time to write a book, but they all start somewhere – with an idea, an observation, something the writer wants to say. I’m not talking about the question every writer gets – Where do you get your ideas? I always answer that question by saying, ‘Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea,’ and “honestly” doesn’t really belong in that sentence because I do know where I get them, but it’s just too complicated to go into. No, what I’m talking about is the moment we, the writers, start to move the idea out of our minds and onto the page.

The Making of Billy McErlane was unusual for me, because my first draft of the first sentence and, in fact, the first chapter was still there the day the book was published. Usually, those first few pages are the scaffolding that supports the book as it unfolds and they have disappeared by the time the file is laid out for the printer. In the case of Billy Mac, the first sentence I wrote was:

All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers

and that sentence, along with the sentences that made up the rest of the first chapter, made it into the finished book. But, as I say, that’s unusual.

What made me think about this was a conversation I had today with one of my favourite writers, Ali Bacon, about places to stay in Gran Canaria. The reason that’s relevant is that I wrote the original first chapter of my latest book, Darkness Comes, on holiday in Gran Canaria. I’d gone out for a walk immediately after breakfast and I didn’t get back until lunchtime (although I did stop for coffee twice, and on one of those stops I also had apple pie and ice cream). As I walked, I started to have an idea for a book about a theme that has been in my mind for as long as I can remember. And when I got back, lunch had to wait because I had constructed the whole of the first two chapters in my head and I needed to get them on paper before I did anything else. Just in case I forgot them.

I compose my best stuff while I’m walking

The book originally had a different working title. It took a long time to finish, and when it did come out (as Darkness Comes), those first two chapters were gone. I didn’t need them any more. They were on the writer’s equivalent of the cutting room floor. But they still – I believe – have something to say, and so I’m appending them here. Anyone who has read Darkness Comes will recognise what’s going on here. And that theme I mentioned is set out quite clearly.

Read it. I hope you enjoy it. If it makes you want to read the book, you’ll find it here.

The Original Opening of Darkness Comes

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Darkness Comes – What Genre Is It?

Darkness Comes by John Lynch

You have to have a genre

There’s a question that every writer has to answer about every book. The question is: What genre is it? Readers want to know, because readers have firm opinions about the genres they like and those they don’t. If you ask me, for example, I’ll tell you I don’t like dystopian fiction although it isn’t really true because Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. But it isn’t just readers – whoever is responsible for marketing your book also wants to know what genre it is because that’s the central plank in the marketing platform they build.

So I have been asked the question: What genre is my new book, Darkness Comes? In fact, I’ve been asked that question rather a lot. And I always try to give some sort of answer because that’s what you do. But the fact is: I haven’t a clue. I don’t know what genre you’d call it.

Usually, I do know

When I wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I was pretty clear that I was writing a coming of age novel. And when I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly, I knew it was essentially a book about the criminal classes and two contract killers, so if anyone asked I’d say it was a crime novel. But this one? Darkness Comes? I can’t place it in a genre. Which wouldn’t bother me, except that it makes selling the book to readers difficult. Before they buy a book, readers want to know what kind of book it is. And I suppose that’s a reasonable wish. So let me try.

Horror it is not

When I first uploaded Darkness Comes to Amazon, I was shocked to see that they put it in the Horror genre. Shocked because, however much trouble I have saying what genre it IS in, I find it easy to list a whole bunch that it isn’t in. And it isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance, either, or mystery, or crime (although there is a lot of crime in it).

The Story

So let’s take a look. The hero is Ted Bailey. Something bad happens to Ted Bailey when he’s still in his teens. Then something else bad happens to him when he’s just out of them. There’s no question that those bad things affect him in his later life, but really Ted’s problem is that he goes with the flow. He lets things happen. And the things that happen include fraud, and selling drugs, and living in Marseille with a woman who has sex with other men for money, and working for the French security services, and setting up a company to sell goods at an immoral profit margin to people who should not be allowed to buy them. Not infrequently, those goods are arms and, when he sells them, he’s breaking an embargo. Oh yes – and he kills one or two people. Well, more than one or two when you come down to it.

But while he’s doing those things, he also does other, more normal things. The sort of things that I do and you do. He falls in love – sometimes he doesn’t choose the woman he falls in love with very well, but there’s nothing unique in that. He helps people facing bad times and he tries not to let them know who it is that helps them. And when he has someone he thinks of as his daughter, he gives her all the love and all the care that the best human beings among us could come up with.

But that stuff – all of that stuff – is, in a way, beside the point. Because the story opens when Ted has an out of body experience after a heart attack. And what follows is a trial for his immortal soul. You might think, after what I’ve told you about his life, that he has no chance – but Saint Peter has enough doubt about that to send Alex, who was Ted’s fiancée and was murdered for it, back from heaven to conduct his defence. And we learn some things about heaven, and about God, that are nothing like the things humans have been taught for the last 2000 years.

There’s More! The Chat Show

Is that it? Not quite. For reasons best known to my imagination (an imagination that has landed me in trouble many times in the past), the trial takes the form of a chat show. And chat shows have guests. In this case, the guests include Peter Sellers, Barabbas, Henry Blofeld, John Betjeman, Ras Tafar, the one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, and a few other people. Some of the guests are still alive; most of them are dead. When you put all that together, and you say we HAVE to have a genre, you end up (and I did end up) saying that the book is about the supernatural.

So there you are: Darkness Comes is a novel about the supernatural. But this, for me, is the difficult bit. Because what seems supernatural to you is probably what seems quite normal to me. I’ve always been aware of another world on the edge of this one, shading into it and sometimes letting itself be seen. When Ted is in his suspended state on the edge of death, he sees things he’s never seen before – but they’ve always been there. They simply aren’t visible to most of the living most of the time.

The book is available in paperback and for Kindle. If you read it, and if then you know what genre it is, tell me. I really would like to know.