Friday, June 5, 2020

With Peter, Sarah and Joy

Yesterday I was supposed to be moderating a panel on writing the series, something I think the bloggers on MIE  will be interested in. All writers have a very different take on the best way to keep the series fresh and engaging without forgetting the name of the the main detective's next door neghbour's dog.

So here is a written version of what would have been a fascinating panel. And being a participating moderator, I do butt on every now and again. No surprise there and  my 'butt' will be italics.

The interview will continue over two blogs as it does make entertaining  and informative reading.

The panellists are Peter Guttridge,  Sarah Hilary and Joy Ellis.  More about them next week, but for now.... on with the interogation. 

Joy Ellis at home with her co-conspirators.

C If you had to introduce your two main characters to friends in the pub, what would you say?

P Detective Inspector Sarah Gilchrist would be in her element in this pub – most pubs – or more likely a wine bar – having a good natter with mates.  She’s quick to stand her round – in fact she probably would have bought the first one.  She says she’s not a brain-box because she’s not a reader and not up on a lot of stuff so feels ignorant but she’s confusing intelligence with knowledge. She’s good at her job through tenacity and meticulousness.

She likes to keep fit but eats too much pasta and probably drinks a bit too much sauvignon blanc so she’s best described as ‘statuesque’.  Very attractive but unfortunately attracts the wrong men or perhaps is attracted to them.  She likes nice men but not as lovers. 

The exception is her ex-boss, Bob Watts, with whom she had a one-night stand at a police conference that broke up his marriage.  She is ever guilty about that if for no other reason than she had a rule about never knowingly going out with married men or men involved with someone.  He’s decent, upright, gentle and a bit boring but even so…

You’d want her sidekick, Bellamy Heap, in your team in the pub quiz.  He’d be a know-it-all except that he never shows off the fact that it seems he does know it all.  Gilchrist calls him her personal Google.  Well-educated, voracious reader, curious about everything.  Dry sense of humour.  A forensic thinker and analyst.  Bound for the top but shows no ambition other than to do his job to the best of his ability. 

          Another nice guy.  Unfailingly loyal and respectful to Sarah Gilchrist.  Always polite and even-tempered.  Especially gallant towards women when you thought the age of gallantry was dead.   Nimue Grace, the reclusive Hollywood actress he encounters in The Lady of The Lake, calls him her Sir Galahad.  She probably means Sir Lancelot but what can you say – she’s an actress.

          He’s Little to Gilchrist’s Large, as other officers gleefully call them behind their back.  He’s short and slight but don’t be fooled – he’s put down much bigger men and knows how to handle himself.  Gilchrist finds it endearing that he blushes.  Pretty much constantly.  He’d be quick to buy a round but he’d probably nurse his half a bitter all evening.

J  They are two dedicated detectives, and although from very different backgrounds, their drive and commitment to their work makes them highly compatible. Jackman comes from a more privileged position and did arrive into the job via university, but even so, he didn’t fast-track, he did his time in uniform before moving into CID. Marie Evans, half Welsh, half Fenlander, who always retains a soft Welsh lilt in her voice (that intensifies if she gets heated!) has no academic background, but is shrewd and has a sharp intuition that rarely lets her down. Physically, Jackman is good-looking in a smart country casual way, and Marie favours motorcycle leathers. She is tall, has long rich brown hair, is something of an Amazon, and rides a powerful motorcycle. Jackman also rides, has done since a child, but his favoured mount, is a horse. Through honest respect for each other, they have forged a lasting friendship, and both, because of past happenings, put the job first.

S This is Marnie Rome, she has demons but she deals with them; you don’t have to buy them drinks.

And this is Noah Jake, he likes tequila and dancing but he’s our designated driver for the night because he needs to know we’ll all get home safely.

                                                           Joy Ellis

C Do you have to like your main characters?  Do you need to respect them?

J   In the case of Jackman and Evans, in the first two counts... absolutely. I have to care about them and what happens to them or the book would be without substance and I couldn’t expect the reader to care either. Preferences? Not really. I probably feel more for Marie, because of her desperately sad history, and the fact that women still have to work harder to prove themselves in a predominantly male environment.

S   Personally, yes, I have to like and respect them. That doesn’t, however, mean they have to be ‘likeable’ characters. Marnie started out very spiky and abrasive because that was part of her arc – she needed to learn how to be vulnerable, to let people in. By the time Never Be Broken takes place, she’s softer than she’s ever been and at the same time far stronger (‘Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.’ Albert Camus).

Noah is my favourite, nothing sneaky about that. For one thing, I’ve always found him easier to write than Marnie. They are both incredibly courageous in their separate ways, but Noah’s courage comes from a place of near-constant conflict and danger. He’s a gay black man in the Metropolitan Police. In Never Be Broken, he’s battling grief – for his brother, but also for his city as London has become such a hostile, alien place.

P   I think to keep a series going you definitely have to like them. Or maybe you have to like writing about them.  (Is that the same thing?) I guess you need to respect them too – I’ve never really thought about that – but I could envisage creating a main character who I disapproved of.

This crime series was originally conceived as a trilogy -City of Dreadful Night, The Last King of Brighton and The Thing Itself – in which ex-Chief Constable Bob Watts was the main character, supported by ex-SAS friend Jimmy Tingley and Sarah Gilchrist, at the time a Detective Sergeant. 

When I decided to extend it into a series with Book 4, The Devil’s Moon, I reduced Bob’s role, increased Sarah’s role and introduced Bellamy, who appeared pretty much fully formed, including the silly first name, in my subconscious one morning.  I like Bob, I respect Bob but I was bored with him as I felt I’d exhausted him.  He’d certainly exhausted me. 

I’d decided not to go for the clichéd loner cop with issues and a drink problem so I’d gone the other way and realised around The Last King of Brighton I’d been influenced in the creation of Watts by my friend, Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner -  sorry and thanks, Quint.

But now I realise I was actually creating a template for a future leader of our country: Keir Starmer – upright, moral,decent, reliable, a brilliant leader but not all that charismatic. 

Do I have a sneaky preference for one of my two main characters? I honestly don’t – I see them as two halves of a satisfying whole.

                                                        Peter Guttridge 

C  And have you ever written something about a serial character and then regretted it two books down the line?

P Good question.  In my previous series, a comic-crime one, I thought it would be funny if my main male character, Nick Madrid, was lousy in bed since male protagonists in crime novels were always great lovers however much booze they’d consumed.  But it got increasingly difficult to think of amusing ways to demonstrate his lack of prowess as the series went on.   Plus at book events there would always be some clever clogs in the audience asking with a nudge and a wink if Nick was based on me.

Talking to many much better writers over the years I learned what pitfalls to avoid with the current series. Having said that, I’m getting a bit bored with Bellamy’s blushing and wonder if I can find a cure for it – maybe give him a sudden shock or is that just for hiccups?

The last name I gave Bob Watts irritates me because I forgot my own rule of never using a last name that ends in ‘s’.  He was originally called Robert Peel but my agent didn’t like that for some reason so I came up with Watts in a rush. I hate having to write Watts’s – ‘Watts’s office’ etc – always think it looks so ugly.

J  Oh yes! Many times. In fact, I’ve just experienced that in a new book that I’m working on right now. A problem of logistics, of where I’d located a character’s birthplace, that made it very difficult to fit into the new story. However, this mainly occurs when a ‘regular’, but not a main character, suddenly takes centre stage for a time in a particular story-line of a book. On one occasion I needed the character to be very independent and self-sufficient, stemming from her history of being an only child, only to check back and discover that in an earlier story I’d given her three sisters!

S    No, although I’ve often feared doing this. The closest I’ve come is giving Marnie her tattoos, as I can’t always remember which ones are where and what they all say. (I remember reading a detective series in which the hero’s eyes changed colour twice in the course of three books, so I’m ahead, in that regard.)

                                                  Sarah Hilary

C How do you keep track of your serial characters?

S  This sounds fanciful but they’re very real to me. They do a lot of whispering in my head in-between books so that helps. And I’ve written a book a year since I started the series, so there’s not much chance of forgetting.

J    In a very old fashioned way! I have an A-to-Z card index. Each book, (22 of them!) has colour-coded cards... pink for female characters, blue for males, yellow for animals and pets, green for place names and locations, and white for vehicles and other incidentals. This helps me track my characters, their relations and friends, dog or cat’s name, where they live, name of their house and what they drive.     C - I'm impressed!

P    Ha!  With difficulty.  I do a lot of checking back in earlier books. For each new novel I have a list of the characters – new and old – on a whiteboard by my computer because I’m rubbish at remembering names.  I created a teenage thug three books ago who recurs and I called him Darren jones.  Or was it Darrel?  I can never remember the first time he appears again.  I’m forever mixing up my Cathleens and Catherines in real life so try not to use those names.   C- I really regret calling one character Archie Walker as he needs to stroll or jog everywhere. And I recall Craig Robertson saying that he had issues after calling his character Winter for obvious reasons.


C Without naming names, what would make you throw a book at the wall in frustration?  (Mine is serial fiction where the kids grown older but the parents stay the same age!)

P  The author not playing fair with the reader by holding back essential information for no plausible reason. b) A frustrating ending.  In my late teens I went island hopping on ferries around the Aegean and took The Magus by John Fowles with me.  Totally absorbing, all these strange experiences for the central character on a Greek island and all the time you’re dying to find out why they are happening to him.  Fowles leaves the reveal late.  And later.  On the last page you’re seeing maybe only four paragraphs to go and you’re no wiser.  Final paragraph the protagonist is waiting on a park bench for someone to explain to him (and the reader) why it has all been happening.  (Spoiler alert!)  Fowles leaves him there and – to add insult to injury – the final sentence is in classical bloody Greek.  I immediately threw the book over the side of the ferry into the Aegean.

J   When a character who you have never met before, and hasn’t even been mentioned, turns up at the end to be the murderer! C  The Taggart Effect!

S See above re the changing eye colour. Also, characters who are terminally incapable of learning a lesson. Marnie and Noah make mistakes because that’s only human, but they don’t tend to make the same mistake twice.


C   Is one character easier to write than the other?

J   Not with Jackman and Marie, I am completely inside both their heads and find their reactions and emotions easy to ‘read’ in all the dire situations that I place them in. I would say that Marie is more fun to write, as she is more forthright and daring (and definitely more amusing) than the serious Jackman.

P  I guess Bellamy is because he’s a man and the know-it-all aspect of him is a bit me.  Although, actually, I’m looking stuff up all the time.  The easy part for me is the dialogue between Gilchrist and Heap.  I have a lot of fun when she asks him to explain something – perhaps a phrase that we all take for granted. E.g. ‘It’s a mile as the crow flies,’ Heap said.  ‘Does a crow fly straighter than other birds?’ Gilchrist said. That kind of thing.  (You’re going to have look it up – I had to.  But don’t get sidetracked by ‘making a beeline’.)

S   Noah is far easier to write than Marnie. I think it’s because he springs purely from my imagination. With Marnie, my inner editor is always asking, ‘Is that how you’d behave, as a woman? Is that what you’d be feeling?’ There is none of that with Noah, who at the same time is immensely real to me. I have huge empathy for him.  C  That empathy really hits  home in the books. In the best possible way, Never Be broken was difficult to read in places because of the huge struggle with bereavement Noah is going through. 


7) Did you always intend to write a series?

P Not this one!  As I said earlier I conceived it as a trilogy then I was going to go back to my comic crime series, which I had always intended to be ten novels.  (I did six.)  When the second of the trilogy – The Last King of Brighton – came out and was doing quite well and I’d delivered the third my publisher said, ‘when are you delivering the fourth?’ I explained it was conceived as a trilogy where the story would be satisfyingly complete at the end of the third, all loose ends tied up.  ‘We want a fourth.’  I explained that I was an artist and couldn’t compromise my artistic vision by even contemplating a fourth.  They mentioned a certain sum of money.  I’ve just delivered Butcher’s Wood, the 8th in my trilogy…   

J  Yes. I had in my head a complete set of police procedural mysteries set within the jurisdiction of the Fenland Constabulary (fictional for obvious reasons). My idea was to have at least three divisions, each with their own set of main characters and all covering different areas of the Fens. As in real life they would share a Home Office pathologist and certain other official bodies, like the Force Medical Officer and the psychologist. I thought that writing different characters would give variety to the writing, and also allow each area to have a slightly different tone. As it is, the Jackman books are more psychological than the Fen Series, and often come from the perspective of the perpetrator of the crime. The Matt Ballard books are grittier, sometimes have a more sexual element, and are evolving so that every book is very different to the last.

S  No, but I was advised by my agent that it was the way to go. This was seven years ago, however, and times have changed since then. 

Thank you all.  Next week we shall be discussing character arcs and killing off characters!

Caro Ramsay

Thursday, June 4, 2020

My Minnesota

Photo: Patrick Lapinski

It's been very difficult being in Cape Town, 14,000 kms (just under 9,000 miles) from my other hometown, Minneapolis. I was horrified by the death of George Floyd, and encouraged by the number of people who came out to protest. Then I was saddened by the property destruction that followed, including two bookstores in south Minneapolis that were burnt to the ground - Uncle Hugo's, the oldest independent science-fiction bookstore in the country, and Uncle Edgar's mystery and fantasy bookstore.

I have such mixed feelings about protests that turn destructive. I empathise with those who have reached frustration point after years of protests that have produced little or no change. I have no sympathy, only disgust, with people who take advantage of situations like these to cause destruction for destruction sake. Not to steal food to survive or loot to sell something for money for food. I don't understand people who loot for its own sake. Do they do it for pleasure? Do they do it to advance some political cause? I don't know, but they probably do it because they are likely to get away with it.

Initially, from this distant vantage point, I thought there had been a few buildings torched and some stores looted. I was shocked when better news started filtering down. One friend sent me this link which details the extent of the mayhem.

I used to work with a wonderful photographer, Pat Lapinski. He took the scenes below.

Third precinct police station (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Remains of a liquor store (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

The ex-liquor store (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Small multi-use building (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Fast-food restaurant (Photo: Patrick Lapinski) (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Wrong place, wrong time (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Even the libraries were not safe (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

On guard (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Ruined (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Minnehaha Falls (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Another vehicle destroyed (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

A fallen Domino's (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

I used to live near this Target (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Speaks for itself (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

I have always loved being in Minneapolis with its great music and theatre, wonderful parks and rivers, and an appealing blend of personal conservatism and political liberalism, although overall the state has shifted to the right since I arrived in 1983. In many ways, though, it is a hands-off liberalism, an 'I am very fortunate, so let me help those who are less fortunate' liberalism. This is good. Voting for liberal candidates is good, donating to appropriate charities is good, but often an understanding of the real circumstances of those less fortunate is missing. In fact, when aggregating a variety of data, Minnesota is near the bottom of all states in terms of racism - something that would come as a shock and an embarrassment to most Minnesotans if they knew it. Click here for a very good article about this.

Here is a quick overview.

There was no population diversity in 1960. Many Minnesotans never saw someone who wasn't white.

Fifty years later, things had changed due to a huge influx of refugees from Vietnam, Laos,  and Somalia (and South Africa!).  

Over the years, household income of Blacks has dropped significantly, while that of other groups has risen.

In case you can't read it, Black family income went from $49,000 in 1970 to $34,000 in 2014. In the same time period, White family income went from $64,000 to $82,000.

It is not surprising that the poverty statistics mirror the decline in family income. The graphs represent the percentage of families in poverty in each race group.

It is really awful.

From my perspective, there have been numerous attempts to reform the racist Minneapolis Police Department, but these have probably failed due to resistance to change within the ranks. I keep hearing that George Floyd's death could be a tipping point, not only for the Minneapolis Police, but also for race relations around the country. I'm not optimistic about that, and I hope I am wrong. 

At the same time there is so much that is bad about what happened, there is also good. Most people in Minneapolis were appalled by the destruction on the first night of protests, so the next day hundreds showed up to help shop owners and the city clean up.

More photographs by Pat Lapinski.

Clean-up crew (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

The big clean-up (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

A little clean-up (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

Tossing petals at George Floyd's memorial
 (Photo: Patrick Lapinski)

It would be very helpful if each one of us asked ourselves what we can do to effect some changes for the better with respect to racism, whether it is calling someone out who is exhibiting racist behaviours or talking about racism with friends and colleagues, not to pin blame but rather to explore and understand what is happening.

If we can do that, then perhaps George Floyd may not have died in vain. 

A sad time for Minneapolis; a sad time for us all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

blinding us with science

I found news in le Parisien newspaper that the grand-daughter of Marie Curie  - yes that woman who won two Nobel prizes  - invited a visit to her home in Antony - outside Paris.
In early March a team from ANDRA - National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management visited Hélène Langevin-Joliot, daughter of Irene and Frédéric Joliot-Curie and granddaughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, to deal with radioactive objects. (L-R Marie Curie, daughter and grand-daughter Hélène w/bob)
These radioactive objects were broadly listed as Marie Curie's personal clothing in an armoire.
Did Hélène, her grand-daughter and physicist herself, decide that these legacies are best left out of the Curie legacy? The uranium ores and bulbs containing radium salts that are supposed to be on the personal effects were  entrusted to ANDRA so according to Hélène, "it won't be a problem later".
I found this fascinating that Hélène, now in her 90's had left this until now.  In the 2000's when I researched Marie Curie's lab for a scene in Murder in the Latin Quarter, it had only been recently been de-radioactivized - if that's a word - by ANDRA. Marie Curie's papers held in the National Archives were still radioactive and if you wished to consult them you had to sign a waiver acknowledging the danger and wear  gloves. Maybe Hélène, who knew her grandmother, hadn't been able to let go of her things. I inherited my grandmothers chest of things: Nancy Drew mysteries from the 30s, motheaten silk beaded flapper dresses of the 20s, sagging photo albums of figures in sepia who remain a mystery. Nothing radioactive as far as I know.
Hélène's mother Isabel, also a Nobel winner, Marie and Hélene.
Hélène, a doctor of Physics today.

Cara -Tuesday

Monday, June 1, 2020

What happened to Journalism

Annamaria on Monday

I know you have seen this before. (Thanks again, Stan.)
As far as I am concerned, it cannot be seen enough,

Ask around with this question, and many of the answers you discover will blame the current sad state of journalism on the dawn of digital media.  This is only partially true.  Spreading lies, as you would imagine, long predated the invention of the iPhone.  Digital information did however make it much easier to spread misinformation.

I was inspired to look into and cogitate about this subject by a shock I received.  An email from the progressive organization MoveOn contained this statement about the Trump administration: “So he and his cronies have begun pushing dangerous conspiracy theories to explain his failures—and, as usual, the media is playing right into his hands.”

What I thought?  It’s the right-wing that usually makes this sort of statement.  They are the ones who have, in the USA anyway, turned the words “the media” into a pejorative, as in the statement above.  Imagine if it said, “the free press is playing right into his hands.”  No one would seek to condemn journalism in general by calling it “the free press.” If one is finding fault with it, it is “the media.”

 Problem is these days it is hard to tell the difference between journalism based on facts and other forms of writing.

True journalism, in other words the reporting of the truth, follows rules.  It does not pass off lies as the truth.  It shares fact checked information.  It does not intermix it with questionable statements or opinions and make them all look like the same thing.

Let’s take a quick look at some definitions:

Fact: a thing that is known or proved to be true.

News: newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events.  Note: In professional news reporting this “information” must be based on assurances that the report contains facts.  Where such reports offer opinions, they are given as such and attributed to the holder of the opinion along with his or her credentials to opine on the subject at hand.

In the old days, when the news came printed on paper, reliable publications let readers know the difference between the news and their editors' opinions by what page they put them on.  They kept their opinions for a special “editorial” section.  Broadcast, tabloid, and especially digital reporting seem to have blurred these boundaries until they have just about disappeared.   

Then there are the black sheep of journalism:

Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

Yellow Journalism: journalism that is based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration.  This dastardly technique has been around for a long time.

These are techniques meant, not to inform the public so people can make their own judgments, but to manipulate them into thinking the way some power grabbers want them to think.

The latest addition to these enemies of an informed electorate is Fake News.

It terrifies me to have to say that, these days, what is available for public consumption is a complete mishmash of all of the above.  Worst of all, those in power have so manipulated public opinion against "the media" that even the most trustworthy outlets of factual, reliable journalism are mistrusted and disregarded, while a large segment of the population have become addicted to propaganda purveyors, who slant everything in the direction of what they want to hear.  This hardens their belief in propaganda and fake news.

As the enemies of professional journalism fully intend, this turns any democracy into a pale, frail, moribund version of the sinewy, vital form of government that it used to be.

If you care about this, I urge you to check out these two ways of learning about journalism:

A greatly entertaining TV series that shows what it takes to cover the news well and how it can go awry.

A podcast that discusses current events and how the media is covering them.  Fascinating in every way.