Inspiration in the ER

Worry not gentle readers, it wasn’t me in the ER. My father-in-law had a bit of what the doctors describe as a ‘cardiac event’ yesterday. He’s absolutely fine now and back home safe and sound, but we did have to spend an hour or two in the local hospital while we waited for a diagnosis. With nothing much else to do (there is only so much ‘Health TV” that any sane person can watch), I used it as an opportunity to get on with Chapter 43, the first three paragraphs of which are appended below for your delectation. This is strictly first-draft stuff, you understand, so no sniggering at the back there, please.

“What about that Lobster Blog Award that you’ve been promising to tell us about for weeks?” I hear you ask. To be honest, I have a horror of chain letters, or anything that smacks of them and this award has that kind of feel about it. However, I am receiving daily psychotherapy and hoping for an improvement any time now. My grovelling apologies to KJ Waters who gave me the award in all innocence, believing me to be a reliable citizen and sound of mind and body. Hang in there, KJ, I may do it yet!

You don’t really need to know the plot to understand this excerpt, but the action is taking place in the City Chambers in post-apocalyptic(ish) Edinburgh, Scotland. Marion is in her mid-fifties and the leader of what’s left of the City Council. Joe is in his late twenties and has recently escaped from being imprisoned by a baddie.

Another night in the museum, Marion thought; although it increasingly felt like an ornate, badly stuffed prison. In the frozen watches of the small hours, she had shocked herself by dreaming about Joe. It was the kind of dream that needed to be roughly shaken off; hateful water on the dog of imagination. But she could not deny its pleasures, those long since expunged from the role-call of her daily existence. She bit her lip, as if pain might sanction the denial of enjoyment.

Dawn had done little to alleviate a sense of the world failing to materialise in its accustomed manner. The sun was utterly foxed by fog, whose ghostly, attenuated fingers had felt their way into the city streets overnight. In the crepuscular light from the pale, pictureless rectangle of her window, the office was a Turner painting in shades of black and grey. The sense that she had become an invisible part of it was shattered when Joe, the version that was high in flesh and bone, exploded through the door.

Marion sighed.

“I see that you’re another of those creatures that fails to understand the concept of knocking on the door.”

“Door?” said Joe, looking back in mock surprise. “What door?”

He sat down: a rush of physical presence; an instant source of entropy; a grinning mocker of the pretentious. He fumbled for his trusty pouch, the ritual of skin-and-strand calmed bubbling waywardness.

“Yeah. Well. I went out for a walk. Jesus, but it’s foggy out there. I met this guy who was ringing a bell and mumbling about the end of the world. I told him that the world had ended and he’d missed all the fun. I think I might have ruined his day. Hopefully.”

There was that tongue again, running along the cigarette paper. Marion was waylaid by a tingling that reminded her of better days.

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A Touch of Writing in the Night

This is really just a filler while I get my act together over the Leibster Blog Award and other pressing matters. A couple of paragraphs from the Work In Progress. (Warnings: may contain strong language; manufactured in an environment which contains nuts).

The old house, squatting viscerally on now-thawing ground, had the best of it. It was deaf to returning boots, babbling excuses, raised voices, retribution. Later, soldiers in washed-out fatigues gathered like children at the foot of the great staircase and listened as the awful shrillness of Farrell’s anger and the bass rumble of Donnelly’s resigned responses played out. Donnelly was their man, a target for loyalty. Farrell was the provider of nourishment and fear, the dripping roast pig at the banquet that kept leaping from the spit and savaging with tusks and sharp hooves.

A door opened; fatigues dissolved into dark corridors; Donnelly came down the stairs, two hundred and ten pounds of pent-up anger. He strode across the hall, an Exocet looking for a whiff of infrared. Nothing registered. He pulled open the oak doors, the horse long since bolted, took a deep breath of warming air; felt sunshine on his face; exhaled shakily. As he fumbled for his Malboros, he wished that fucking McLennan and his ghastly crew would come marching up the drive and they could finish it once and for all.

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A New Year flip-flop

Hello? Anyone out there? I’m really not terribly sure about this at all. In fact, I’m actually distinctly lukewarm about the whole idea. Or perhaps ‘lukewarm’ is putting it too strongly. I’m also worried about the number of words ending in ‘ly’ that I seem to be using. A sure sign of weakness. I wanted to talk about New Year…you know…thingies. Those – er – firmnesses of resolve that people make a lot of when one year carelessly (sorry!) picks up an extra digit and inadvertently (damn!) becomes another. Year, I mean.

Anyway. My thought was that this blog suffers from institutional neglect. Were it a cat or a dog, I would be had up for cruelty. I felt that it might benefit from a bit more – um – discipline on my part. Instead of posting once every not very often, I might bestir myself to write some meaningless tarradiddle (if you’ve read this far, you will have a good grounding in precisely what that involves), let’s say once a (gasp!) week.

There, I’ve said it. The cat is out of the bag, the genie out of the bottle and there is no going back.

Of course, there may be slippage…

Now, what was that lovely KJ Waters telling me? Something about a Lobster Blog Award.

No good can come of it.

A Hippy Blue Year to you all.

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Interview with author Martha Bourke

Once again, the Haddon blog demonstrates that no journey is too far, no challenge too great to get in the way of interviewing talented authors. Martha is the author of the the excellent Jaguar Sun series which includes Jaguar Sun and Jaguar Moon. I interviewed her at her delightful New England home.

It was the duct tape that got me there in the end. The Appalachian Trail is a long and weary way to get from Maryland to New England and WalMart’s best walking boots weren’t perhaps the sensible choice. The penurious author suffers for his craft.

Late afternoon sun made artwork from Fall colors; a bluster of wind produced a flurry of golden snow from tall trees as I limped the last few yards past the old stone wall. The house was perfect for the place and the season. Deep-red, tall-gabled, its eaves reaching down as if trying to touch the ground. The center chimney looked set to defy the worst onslaught of a New England winter.

Martha met me at the door: dark eyes reflected Autumn; warm smile hesitated as she took in the tramp which I had become.

“Goodness,” she said. “Did you have a disagreement with a bear?”

“Not a bear as such,” I said. “More of a thorn bush. I was trying to have a private moment to empty my bladder.”

“TMI,” she said.

This slim woman in her vintage sweater, skinny jeans and ankle boots made me giddy. Or perhaps it was hunger.

“The duct tape is a nice touch,” she said, moving to one side and inviting me to come in. Brave woman.

A shower, several large slices of cake and the donation of proper clothes made all the difference. We sat on the sleeping porch: Martha’s spiritual home. The place where she wrote the wonders of Jaguar Sun and Jaguar Moon. I sat on the white wooden chest with cushions and gawped at the photos hanging from the picture rail. Martha sat in the wicker rocker.

“Right,” I said. “Time for the interview. Tell me how you started writing.”

She crossed her legs, uncrossed them, leaned forward, swung back. She was clearly giving the questions a lot of thought.

“It all actually started with poetry in the fourth grade. My teacher really liked some of my poems and even tried to get a few of them published in magazines. She wasn’t successful, but I was hooked! From there it was short stories around grade six. By high school I was writing novellas by hand in my spare time. I always had a wild imagination and I think writing was, and is, the perfect outlet for it.”

Percy the dog sat beside her and bit his nails.

“Is he finding this nerve-racking?” I asked.

Martha stroked his head.

“I doubt it. But who knows? The nail thing is a just a habit, I think. OCD for dogs.”

She reached out for another piece of cake.

“So,” I said. “What about Jaguar Sun? Pretty amazing piece of work, if I may say so. Where did that all come from?”

The smile was full on this time. The cake stayed on the plate.

“Well, thank you, Stuart. I’ve always loved foreign languages and cultures. I was a foreign language teacher for fifteen years. I’ve also always loved to write. For some reason, I thought my first novel would have a Hispanic theme. I read other Young Adult books, like Esperanza Rising, and continued to feel that way. As it would turn out, my first novel, still unpublished, is about a witch. In December 2011, I took a sabbatical from teaching. Over Christmas, Maya’s character popped into my head not long after. She started out as a normal teen living somewhere in the southwestern United States. I knew she was Hispanic; I knew she was abandoned by her mother; and I knew she was close to her grandmother.”

I helped myself to cake and we munched companionably for a moment. Percy gave me a look which I interpreted as, “You’re no damn use as a visitor if you don’t offer cake to the dog.” I tore my eyes from his, which now looked darkly accusing.

“What about process?” I said. “You know, from idea to final product?”

“Usually, when I write, the process is pretty much the same. A few major scenes will come into my head – action, dialogue – almost like in a movie. I take notes and write down what I can. And from there it’s all about filling in the story between those scenes. I do research as I realize I need to. So I guess that makes me a pantser with planner tendencies?”

“I guess it does. I empathise with that. My pants are worn out from all that flying.”

She laughed. “And all those thorn bushes!”

“Quite so.”

A phone rang in another room. Martha excused herself and I got up and had a look at bookshelves. Percy’s eyes followed me as if they were attached by strings. I found Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s sensational fable of the early 1970s. A million copies in two years. Amazing. I also found an abundance of Dickens, including A Christmas Carol. One of my own favorites. Then there were books and authors I didn’t know. Fledgling by Natasha Brown. I read the first paragraph. Intriguing. And Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. “Once upon a time, an Angel and a Devil fell in love. It did not go well.” I liked that.

Martha returned, apologetic, and we sat down again.

“Tell me about publishing and marketing,” I said. “The author’s bane.”

Martha carved out a couple more slices of cake.

“I’m a proud Indie writer, so I don’t have a publisher. Basically, because Jaguar Sun, the first book in the series, revolves around the end of the Mayan calendar this December, traditional publishing was not an option for me. I finished writing it in April 2011, and I was told by an editor at a conference that a trad publishing house wouldn’t accept it, because they wouldn’t be able to get it out in time. But he really liked it. A couple of months later, my sister gave me an article about self-publishing and I was on my way. I market my series by using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. I’ve done a blog tour, and some KDPS free days at Amazon. Right now, I have both Jaguar Sun and Jaguar Moon at all outlets. I’m running Jaguar Sun free indefinitely, as a lead in to the series. Since the series is five books, I think it makes sense. A lot of YA series authors do that. Revelations, which is a prequel novella to the series, comes out at the end of the month and I’m considering running that free as well. But it has to be something you’re comfortable with, of course.”

Outside, darkness had ushered out the day and was in full command. A dog yipped, far off. Or maybe it was a fox. Percy broke off nail-biting and lifted his head.

“Tell me what you enjoy most about writing, and what frustrates you,” I said.

Martha grinned.

“The characters for sure! My mother calls them my “people.” She’ll say, “What’s going on with your people today?” She’s 82 and what a hoot. She does make me sound a little like Sally Field in Sybil. She means well, though. It’s the other things that go along with writing that frustrate me: editing, proofing, formatting, getting my work up on all the sites. It drives me nuts. I have people who help me with all of this, of course. But I really would rather be writing.”

I began to put my laptop away.

“You working on a new project of some kind?” I asked.

She tapped the side of her nose.

“Not saying, I’m afraid. Top secret.”

I zipped up my backpack.

“Very intriguing. I look forward to it, whatever it is.”

I stood up. Martha stood up. Now she was looking concerned.

“You’re not going, are you? It’s pitch dark out. My husband will be back soon and we can have dinner and then you’re very welcome to stay the night.”

I sighed.

“That’s really lovely of you to offer, but I gotta go. It’s a couple of weeks at the very least back down the trail and I’ve got writing to do myself.”

She held out a plate.

“Cake?”

“Thanks, and do you have any duct tape?”

 

Martha’s website is at http://www.marthabourke.com

Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/jaguarsunseries

Find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Martha_Bourke

And on Google+ at https://plus.google.com/u/0/111506780154296861030/posts

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Running for Life

In my new novel, one of the characters escapes from captivity. The following describes the point where he makes it to freedom. I like it.

He settles into a pace fit to carry him to world’s end and back. The road meets another in a T, black-on-black in the tattered darkness, and he swings left without thinking. A childhood memory levitates unbidden: warm sun on bare backs; baby-buggies and rucksacks; cobbled streets and the nearness of traffic; tall girders and ice cream; shuttling boats and a raucousness of gulls: a day out in Queensferry. The old buildings huddle in to him as he passes. The high, sharp smell of ozone, the dull undertow of bad drains; cobbles through slush; lancets of once-bright window glass. He is the only moving spirit in this scarred-scape, feels like the last free-man in a world gone to wetness, wild wind and grime. But, as the defile of the town street drops behind and he feels the inky mass of the rail bridge towering on his left hand, at least he now knows where he is going.

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A Sense of Plaice

If you feel that there is something fishy about the title of this blog, then you may well be right. My wife and I have an apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland. Its address is Portland Place and there is a fish and chip shop below which we would dearly like the owners to call “Portland Plaice.” Actually, come to think on it, it’s now an Indian restaurant, so that doesn’t work anymore. Damn.

All of which fustian tarradiddle convinces me that I should get to the point. Right from the moment at which I first considered writing a novel, standing outside a beach locker on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay with Joe The Dog looking at me as if to say “let’s just get home, pal, I haven’t had breakfast yet,” the color and smell and shape of places has been a big part of what I write and how I write. I usually go in for short sentences, too.

It’s tempting, of course, to make up locations. You can have them just the way you want and let your imagination create the plaice. Sorry, place. What I discovered, as the first novel blundered into existence, was that I like using the real thing. In particular, I like using places that I have visited or know well. Even then, the kind of detail required, especially when action scenes are concerned, requires more information than my old memory can possibly muster. This is where Google Maps, Earth and Street become invaluable.

For example, I needed to locate a tower block in London, suitable for landing a helicopter and near to MI5 HQ. I flew Google Earth to the banks of the Thames and hovered near to my area of interest. Bingo! A building called Millbank Tower fitted the bill. Then followed some background research on the actual building (how many floors, nature of construction, helipad included? etc). Finally, Google Street allowed me to put together what my characters would see as they emerged from the building. Here is part of the relevant text from The Butterfly & The Bull.

Colin and I were still crumpled from sleep when Lynn arrived, transformed from scary MI5 agent by faded jeans and a blue fleece. She led us up dark stairs and we emerged into an unresolved April morning. A threadbare covering of cloud struggled to obscure the eager Spring sun. Across the road and below the embankment’s edge, the Thames drifted past, a constant, noisome token of the collapse of good intentions. The building behind us rose glacially in the cool air, steel and glass levels thirty-three high perched on a single floor extending on either side of the base of the tower. Supporting columns at street level formed a cool, shadowy arcade. As we turned to our left and slipped in under the canopy, I caught a glimpse of a corner of Thames House peering bluntly at us. MI5 HQ. 

Detail is often important to bring places alive for the reader.  To achieve this, personal knowledge can be invaluable.  In this extract, the hero and his companion are sailing across the Irish Sea to the Island of Jura off the West Coast of Scotland.

Homecoming. Six months previously that would have involved walking up Virginia Avenue and smiling at Theresa as I headed across the foyer of our apartment block. Now, in the light of a new day, I was sailing towards another, older home.

I could have closed my eyes and imagined almost perfectly the unfolding animation of sea and land as we sailed north. Frame by frame, its pattern was deeply etched in my mind. I could feel memories crowding and jostling for attention, vivid and visceral.

As the purple and green and tan landscape unfolded on either side of the shimmering sea, I felt a reconnection with the people and the land I had loved and left. It brought strength and pleasure, and a little sadness.

Synchronous kittiwakes flowed past us in blissful formation and I called John to watch a trio of puffins clatter by, all frantic wing beats and clownish looks. In my case, “home” was a moveable feast. Born on the island of Lewis, many miles to the north, I spent much of my childhood and adolescence in Oban, a fishing town in the county of Argyll. My friendship with Colin McKay changed that focus. He came from the island of Jura and was a boarder at the high school when I met him. We spent weekends and holidays on Jura and his parents were a second mother and father to me. The island and the seas around it became ours.

Craighouse is situated at the south end of the big bite taken out of Jura low down on its east side and is partly protected by a string of islets called The Small Isles. We doused the sails and motored in through the southern passage between the mainland and the first islet. As we came into the bay we could see, from our left: a big wooden jetty with a couple of fishing boats moored alongside; the Isle of Jura Hotel with the distillery behind; the little landing jetty with the island store just by it and the houses of the village strung out along the shore. In the foreground, several boats were moored to red metal buoys. Behind it all, the bulk of the Paps, slopes darkening as the sun retreated to the west, quartzite summits glowing. 

Finally, here is an extract from the sequel to TBATB, called Flight of the Butterfly. The sense of place here comes entirely from intimate personal knowledge, acquired over many years of attending meetings in the City Chambers in Edinburgh.

Marion McInnes crushed another unsuspecting sheet of paper in her hand and decided that she hated the picture of Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall opposite her desk. As the pale scrumple described an arc to join its fellow travellers in the waste bin, she became convinced that the great man’s expression had gradually changed over the years, from serene wisdom to naked disapproval.

She could hardly blame him. He had been witness to a slide in moral standing unprecedented even for local politics in the City of Edinburgh. Marion well understood the part she had played in that. Her robust defence of the leadership she had carved out amidst financial and social collapse was based on pragmatism. The wily old politician turned shark. Sunk from the down and dirty predictability of politics to dealing with mobsters, gang leaders, community militia and criminals of all colours. She knew that she was more than a match for her fellow inmates in the council chambers, whether they were for her or agin’ her, but these other forces were a different matter. Some days, she could feel the city slipping between her fingers.

Marion looked down at her hands, resting on the old oak desk. Fleshy hands, with the blotchy stains of freckles inherited from her mother and the stubby fingers from her father, the left ring one still with its pale indentation.

She opened her laptop, realised the futility. The power was out, the office lit only by the thin January light from the old sash windows. She sighed and stood up. The room was an overblown manifestation of Victoriana: overwrought woodwork, over-piled carpet, humourless furniture. Marion felt the ambiguity of it: raddled familiarity versus anachronistic stuffiness.

She walked to the window, gazed out over the gap-toothed canopy of Waverley Station. Beyond, the grimy flounces and fripperies of the Balmoral Hotel. The snow of past days had melted and frozen on buildings and streets and pavements, a translucent carapace. She pulled her wool coat around her and shivered.


So. There you have it. A sense of plaice. To give your novel real sole.

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Three Days in the Life of Chapter 24

Friday:  Chapter 24 seems like a good name for a creation that follows on from Chapter 23, so I write that as a heading and then I have a lovely blank page to fill. There are only two characters in this chapter, both bad guys, and I decide to write it from the point of view of one of them. He’s called Donnelly. In the first novel, he didn’t have a first name. I decide to call him Dwight. I write Dwight Donnelly on the page and then urge the man to do something. He fails to respond. Dammit. I get up and walk around, but when I get back to the page, he’s still just sitting there. Correction, standing there. Well, that’s a start, I guess. These guys are holed up in a big old baronial mansion, so I write:

Dwight Donnelly paused in the doorway, dwarfed by its pretentiousness.

It feels like crap, but maybe I can improve it once I’ve written a bit more. Dwight has paused because he’s about to meet with his deranged boss, following recent events which didn’t go as planned. He refuses to move for me, so I decide on a change of writing scene and drive to the local library. After a strong coffee, I write the next bit:

Dwight Donnelly paused in the doorway, dwarfed by its pretentiousness. The last group of men had echoed raucously across the terrazzo floor and vanished into the rear of the building. A comforting thrum told him that the generator was back on. A single light bulb shone from the top of the staircase, intimidated by the dimensions of the huge hall.

After half-an-hour of gazing round at the comings and goings in the library, I add:

He breathed in the reek of gunfire, kicked at an empty shell case. It tinkled musically on the hard floor. He turned to his right and walked to the oak-panelled wall on the north side of the space, to the doorway that led into the rooms beyond. The heavy door was open, though he knew he had earlier locked it himself. On the far side of the doorway, a moth-eaten carpet was stained with blood. He pursed his lips and then turned and crossed to the staircase, its mahogany handrail and balusters bullet-splintered.

That’s it for the library stint. Later in the day, I add some more, but it’s not any better and I give up.

Saturday: Spend the day’s writing time staring at what I’ve written and changing words. “Pretentiousness” becomes “ostentation”, for example. By the end of the day, I decide that I’ll give up writing and take up macramé.

Sunday: Start the day by highlighting everything I’ve written, cutting it and pasting into a separate document called “Parking Page” which holds sections I dislike but don’t want to throw away. Over the next few hours, I write:

Dwight Donnelly was a dark shape in a landscape devoid of light. Then, like a firefly in momentary flight, the glowing end of his cigarette described a truncated arc. For several heartbeats, it lit up a fleshy face. Small eyes glistened damply under folded lids, the nub of a nose dwarfed by bulging cheeks. Smoke trickled from his lips and he exhaled. Smoke and mist. The best thing about his day so far. When the smoke was done, he was going to have to meet with Farrell and it would be mostly downhill from there. Behind him, the old house was deaf and blind to the machinations of people. The last of his men had already clattered raucously across its terrazzo floor, heading for the back of the building, companionship and a stiff drink or two.

Adrenalin, pumped up by anticipation, tension and things gone wrong, was dribbling away. He felt tired and depressed. Farrell, he knew, would be taking a dump: an unfailing habit after any excitement. Between times, the man suffered the agonies of chronic constipation and the martyrdom of piles. Donnelly took a last, decadent drag, flicked the stub into the night, turned and marched back into the building.

I take it from there and finish the chapter. I imagine that my editor will have things to say about it, but the important thing is that I like it. For now.

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