Sunday, January 31, 2016

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night … Redux: Opening Lines

It’s no secret that I am fascinated by the whole business of opening lines for novels. The opening line or two carries so much of the weight of expectation from the reader. To my mind it has not only to accurately portray the tone of the story, but also to encapsulate the voice of the writer.

Time is so short for most of us that, if we are not very quickly lured into a book, it tends to be put down and lost in the flow of Other Stuff that clutters up our lives. If the writer is familiar to the reader, they want to be quickly reassured that, yes, they can confidently snuggle down with another journey into a well-loved world of characters they know will satisfy and enthral.

If the writer is unknown to them, they may have tiptoed into the work by way of a personal recommendation, good reviews, glowing tributes from other authors they admire, and a jacket précis that seems intriguing.

None of this will matter a jot, however, if the opening line does not intrigue them and the prose does not slip smoothly down the throat. Either that or grab them by it and refuse to let go.

I’ve been thinking about this a good deal lately because I have finally finished edits on my latest standalone and have now jumped back into the next in the Charlie Fox series. I already had a rough idea for the opening, but as it shaped up it has become:

‘The dead man had not gone quietly. If what had been done to him was any indication, he probably died screaming, begging, cursing, or a mix of all three. There was a time when I would have given everything I owned to be the one responsible for that.’

Which, I hope, serves a number of purposes. It was intended to fling open the door to the story and yank you inside. A man is dead. Nastily dead. And Charlie – who spends her time as a professional bodyguard trying to preserve the lives of her clients – sounds almost … disappointed that she wasn’t the one to finish him off.

So, who is he? What did he do? What has been done to him? And why?

I’ve always felt that a good opening line – and opening chapter – is half the battle. Of course, deciding exactly where in your overall storyline is the right place to invite the reader to step inside, is quite another problem.

I was intrigued to see the openings of the works of my fellow Murder Is Everywhere authors, and I’ve had a lot of fun delving into their different styles and jumping-in points.

Take this opening from Annamaria Alfieri in her book, STRANGE GODS:

‘They never went out in the dark because of the animals. But if she was ever to escape the boredom of life confined to the mission compound, tonight determination had to win out over terror.’

I really like this. It opening in close-third-person from the viewpoint of a female character we know is timid and possibly not very worldly. What is so important that she must brave the terrors of the dark? And will she survive the experience?

Likewise, Cara Black’s opening to MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS:

‘Aimée Leduc clipped the French military GPS tracker to the wheel well, straightened up and gasped, seeing the Peugeot’s owner standing in the shadowy Marais courtyard. So much for being très discrete. She’d blown the surveillance – now what?’

This too, drops the reader straight into the action alongside the heroine of book fifteen in Cara’s series. You would almost not be human if you weren’t compelled to read on in order to find out how Aimée extracts herself from this faux pas.

Jørn Lier Horst goes for a description of the dead in the opening to his latest William Wisting series novel, THE CAVEMAN:

‘The dead man was completely desiccated, leaning back in a chair, his lips lacerated and blackened, yellow teeth exposed. Wisps of dusty, wizened hair were still attached to his skull and pale, glossy bones visible through the skin on his face.’

By majoring on the state of the body, Jørn hooks the reader by making them stare a little too long for comfort at the shrivelled remains. All kinds of questions immediately arise not only about the identity of the dead man, but how he came to sit undiscovered for long enough to mummify.

INDIA GRAY by Sujata Massey is different from the others on this list because it is a book of four shorter works, including the title story. The first tale, however, is called OUTNUMBERED AT OXFORD:

‘Perveen and Alice had made excellent progress with a bottle of Madeira by the time Maude opened the door. They hadn’t done as well with Perveen’s Roman law essay or Alice’s geometry proof. It had been a lark, breaking the rules with a few tiny drinks as they studied by the fire on a cold February evening in Perveen’s third-floor room. But the thrill was gone.’

The style suits the period in which the story is set – immediately after the Great War – and implies a Golden Age domesticity which is just about to be very rudely interrupted by far more than the unexpected arrival of the college scout, Maude!

For the latest in Caro Ramsay’s Anderson and Costello Scottish police procedural series, THE TEARS OF ANGELS, Caro lulls you into a false sense of peace and security with the opening to the prologue:

‘Looking across the loch the old man thought back to summers past. Golden memories of tartan rugs and sticky fingered picnics, of skinned knees and savage midges. A day spent hauling haversacks on to trams, running for trains, pullin on his mum’s hand, desperate to get to the farm.’

Contrast this idyllic memory with the start of chapter one:

‘He was lying on his back, snuggled into a blanket of short grass on the hillside as if in a deep sleep. His head was twisted slightly towards the rising sun, showing the ripped and broken skin and the rivulets of dried blood that had coursed from his nostrils to follow the contour of his upper lip before dropping on to the grass below.’

Just when you think this first chapter is going to follow the gentler, more melancholy tone of the prologue, Caro gently head-butts you with that ‘as if’ and from then on you’re glued to the page.

I must ask Michael and Stan of the Michael Stanley team which of them comes up with the openings for their novels, or is it a truly joint effort. I know they often write scene or chapter turn and turn about, but at some point there has to be a decision on who takes that initial dive into the murky waters. Here’s the start to their latest Detective Kubu novel, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY:

‘Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream. He was at an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Palms hotel. His table was on the patio away from the noisy bar, and Joy, his wife, was visiting her sister, so she couldn’t limit how much he had to eat.’

This gives you a wonderful insight into the character of Kubu, his appetites and his relationship with his wife. Ever so slightly under the thumb?

Jeffrey Siger had a very intriguing opening for the seventh title in his Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series, DEVIL OF DELPHI:

‘He was born precisely one year after his mother’s death. At least that’s what the birth certificate read. His father wasn’t around to notice the mistake, having vanished immediately after his fateful one-night stand. Nor did the orphanage pick up on the error; they simply treated him as the child of an unidentified itinerant mother, born on the day she died giving birth in one of Athens’ worst public clinics.’

Somehow you know – even before you reach the end of this short opening scene – that this unusual child is not destined for glory.

The opening for Susan Spann’s latest Shinobi mystery, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, throws you into the story with a jolt:

‘ “Halt!” The armored samurai stepped forward to block the bridge. “No one crosses the Kamo River without identification. State your names and your business in Kyoto.”
            Hattori Hiro gestured to the Jesuit at his side. “Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, a priest of the foreign god, from Portugal. I am Matsui Hiro, his interpreter and scribe.” ’

This has the effect of introducing the two main characters for the benefit of new readers, as well as seeming perfectly reasonable to those who know them well.

What interests me are the different styles for the openings to series and standalone novels. The start to a series book, particularly one that’s been running for a while, can have a tendency to assume the reader is familiar with the characters and the set-up, even if each individual plot will be different.

To appeal to both old and new readers with the same opening is a tricky balance to get right. It is something I bear in mind every time I begin a new Charlie Fox novel.

For the new standalone, however – DANCING ON THE GRAVE – there was almost too much choice about where to begin, and I changed my mind several times before settling on:

‘It is a bad day to die … a perfect one to kill.

The sniper lies in cover towards the upper northeastern edge of the valley. His right eye is up close behind the ten-power scope attached to the receiver of the rifle. He is watching a massacre as it unfolds below him.’

And I have to hope that fans of Charlie, and of the main protagonist in my previous standalone, THE BLOOD WHISPERER, will be intrigued enough by this to give it a try …

So, what about your favourite opening lines? Did they give you a fair idea of the book, or were they completely out of left field?

This week’s Word of the Week is palimpsest, meaning writing material, as in a parchment, tablet or scroll, which has been used more than once, the earlier writing having been removed or erased. It can also refer to anything which has successive layers beneath the surface, such as layers of different paint on a wall. It comes from the Latin palimpsestus, or Greek palimpsēstos scraped again, and was first used in the early 1800s.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Greece is Europe's Refugee Filter Trap.


Yesterday afternoon I completed my one-month college teaching gig by grading the budding mystery novels my dozen students had revised and re-revised over the past three weeks.  Who would have guessed werewolves were still so popular?  Now it’s time for me to get off campus before they get to see their grades. :) No, not the werewolves.

It’s been a hectic four weeks—teaching two-and-a-half hours virtually every weekday, spending eight hours each day critiquing the new writing, and additional hours preparing for the next day’s lecture.  Oh, yes, and then there’s that little matter of Andreas Kaldis novel #8 due February 1st. My, Lord, that’s MONDAY!  Not to mention a Sunshine Noir short story promised to some folks who hang around this site.

But, that will all work out, I’m sure.

I’d like to say I feel at peace with the world…I certainly feel I’m blessed to have spent time laboring among the world’s best hope for Peace—Teachers, God bless them.  But having just jumped back into the midst of world news, my disposition on the state of our planet has not improved.

Forget about the US Presidential races, that’s a plague on everyone’s house courtesy of our Media-Politico Complex.  May they reap what they sow, though sadly we voters who bow to the charlatans’ siren songs will pay the greatest prices. 

Still, that’s not what’s fired me up. It’s been that way for way too many election cycles to get me riled up again.

What has me fuming is the holier than though attitude of the European Union on a subject that’s only gotten worse since I last wrote about it.

Now anyone who knows me realizes I am hardly a fan of how Greece’s governments (that’s plural) have handled things over the last you-pick-the-number-of years, but what the EU is doing to make Greece the scapegoat for the EU’s utterly dysfunctional, unrealistic immigration processes is unconscionable.

Figures for first 22 days of 2016

What the EU faces today has been anticipated for decades, but most member states’ methods of preparing for this inevitable migration can be summed up in a single word: NIMBY. Not in my back yard—unless of course they needed laborers to work in their yards.

Sound familiar? Yes, the US has it’s own potboiler of a situation, but try as they might, states of the US cannot set their own immigration policies.

EU member-states apparently can, or at least are acting as if they can.  But rather than facing up to the consequences of not planning for the long predicted stream of refugees rushing into Europe for safety and economic opportunity, the EU choses to cast its fickle finger of blame on its most financially strapped, politically vulnerable member, Greece.  And just to make it suffer a lot more, the EU threatens to deny Greece’s tourist dependent economy the benefit of passport free travel between Greece and its Schengen member states.

A country of eleven million in the midst of a worsening Great Depression is expected to carry the load of processing and protecting an annual flow of immigrants equal to seven-percent of its nation’s population.  And it’s not as if the faucet’s in Greece, but rather you’ll find it in the land of its historic enemy, Turkey, where human traffickers are making billions each year off the dreams of those seeking safety in Europe.

Still the EU finds it easier to simply blame Greece for not turning off a fire hose held in another’s hands, and dismiss as inadequate the efforts of everyday Greeks and volunteers from around the world doing what the EU should be doing—behavior that may yield a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for those working on the ground in Greece.

Frankly, I think the EU’s afraid.  Its members’ nationalism is showing, and its long unstated but simple plan for protecting its mainland members from the onslaught of immigration is no longer working.

And what was that plan? Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis described it succinctly a half dozen years ago: “[EU] Member states kept returning immigrant asylum seekers to Greece claiming that, as their original EU entry point, by law they’re a Greek problem—as if Greece were the European Union’s immigration filter trap.”

Yep, that’s precisely how the EU has long regarded Greece.  But that filter trap was built to accommodate the flow from a garden hose, not a fire hose.  And trying to channel the flow into your neighbor’s house rather than dealing with it at its source will only flood you both.

I think it’s way past time for the EU to call in a professional plumber capable of fixing its household’s outdated, ineffective system; professionals capable of addressing the problems at their source. Otherwise, man the lifeboats, EU, for the water will only keep coming.

And the drownings.


Friday, January 29, 2016

The Noble art Of Scotti Baiting.

I have been very jealous if these other MIE types who are in lovely places at the moment. I have spent the last week in computer hell while watching the different colour of weather warnings flash up on the screen.
                                                    I'm under the yellow bit

Also, this week we could not pay our staff any wages (this is due to an internet glitch at the bank ) so I am in hiding in case they catch me or punch me or kill me and sell my body parts on the internet. 
They would then have to divide up the 40p between them.

 It has been a very computery ruined week- hence my silence on the comments page, for  which I am sure you were grateful but the bad news is that  I am back. I am sitting here hiding in a post edit haze, stuffed full of dark chocolate with cranberries and red wine and have no energy to write something clever. So I am going to steal other people’s cleverness instead.
                                          From the TV Drama Threads.... 

One of my favourite quotes about Glasgow is from the wondrous Billy Connolly. I think I have used it here before.  “The great thing about Glasgow now is that if there is a nuclear attack it'll look exactly the same afterwards”

I was scouting round the net for some anti Scottish sayings and they are very difficult to find as all things about Scotland are marvellous in every way – except the weather, the politicians, the economy, the food, the people, our neighbours down south.
We do have good scenery.
When you can see it!
Samuel Johnson was not a fan. Well, we know that it took Robbie Coltrane to advise him to put Aardvark in the dictionary, near the front. And that he might have missed out contrafibularity.
I will forgive but not forget.
                                                   Robbie being Samuel

Here are some of Sammy’s observations.
"Scotland is a vile country, though God made it, but we must remember that he made it for Scotsmen, and comparisons are odious, but God also made Hell."
(Hell might be warmer. I am writing this blog with the heating on full, the wood burner on max and I have my anorak round my shoulders)
Samuel also said… "Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to a horse, but in Scotland it supports the people."  
"Much may be made of a Scotsman, if he is caught young."
"The noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England." (Caro snorts in outrage!)

                                              He looks a right barrell of laughs...

And then there was Charles Lamb.  "I have been trying all my life to like Scotsmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair"
What does he know.
Or Sidney Smith
"It requires a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotsman's understanding." (I think readers of this blog will doubt that very much or will be too scared to agree to it!)

"Scotsmen take all they can get - and a little more if they can…"

Or as we say…
"Give a Scotsman an inch and he'll take a mile."

One I do like is….
"Three failures and a fire make a Scotsman's fortune."
I found a few websites dedicated to the subject of annoying Scottish people.  They seem like an instruction manual as if Scotty baiting was some kind of national sport. None of them have annoyed me in the past although I have been the subject of all of them. I just put it down to the jealousy of the English as they can’t be Scots and deep down inside, they really desire to be. But can’t cope with the midges.  Can anybody!!

So in no particular order...
People shouting “Och aye the noo!” at me. He was a native American- oh no, that was Hawk Eye The Noo. (See above point about sense of humour!)

Calling me English. I don’t find it offensive, I just think it’s bloody obvious that I am not. And never accuse me of being Welsh that’s just unfair!
                                                    teee heeee
I once spent a whole dinner party being asked to say the words. There’s been a murder, purple, film, burger, corduroy and curly wurly. Anybody with any sense knows that the word film has got two syllables fil and um.

Asking me if I believe in Nessie then arguing with me when I say yes.  Our monster, leave her alone. she supports our economy.

When folk say they have never been to Scotland, but think it’s nice. Stay away. If you can’t make the effort to waterproof yourself then you don’t deserve the majesty of our land/culture/football team/tatan stuff in general.
 I did nearly smack somebody in the kisser when they were surprised that Scotland a) had opera, b) the opera is based in Glasgow and c) it is quite good. But not many open air performances for obvious reasons.

It doesn’t annoy me at all when folk claim their great-great-great-great grandfather was Scottish, so that means they are too. The more the merrier but don’t all come back at once or the British Isles will tip over. The ancestry thing is problematic, John Barrowman, no thanks, (Canadian Scot) but Chris Hadfield, Oh yes (Canadian Scot.) We can afford to pick and choose as Scots get everywhere and breed ( see accents below)
                                                    pseudo Scot
Never call a kilt a skirt unless you are two young to know the difference - about three years of age max...

Visitors who moan about the rain can also so away – they say how beautiful and green the country is, like those two things are in no way related.

And sometimes they act as if there are only two places in Scotland.  Glasgow… and the other one…

Folk say that we pronounce things incorrectly and then say that we don’t speak English. We do, it’s just not their English. I have to work hard to understand them, but we don’t get the same allowance. Eeejits. Loch is not difficult to say. Ecclefechan is. I have been told that a Scottish accent is very sexy so we have to learn to cope with all that attention…( see ancestry above)
                                           Sexy accent Scot
Some people go mental when there is a yellow weather warning for rain. Scotland is the country in the forecast picture that is under the symbol for ‘yellow warning for rain’ the hot bit at the bottom of the map can be annoying too when they are at Wimbledon on their Vest and shorts while we are in wellies and wrap round duvets.

And never wonder aloud what a “real Scotsman” wears under his kilt. Just pick it up and look if you are brave enough? NO? Well that’s and end to that then!

And yes we are a bit crap at some sports at the moment but we did invent a fair few so gies a break, we are just letting the rest of the world have a chance.
It has been said that all Scots are liars. Not true, but we do adjust out history as it suits us. See point above about sport. And ancestry

Scotch is Scotch. It is a drink not a person, a race or an adjective. Whiskey is never Scotch. Neither is anything American especially Mel Gibson. As he is Australian. Or something.

 The terms “England”, “Great Britain”, and “United Kingdom” all refer to a slightly different thing.

Editors not knowing that “outwith” is a word. As is wee. And shuddery. 


Caro  29 01 2016

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kia ora from paradise

Stanley - Thursday

I was going to write a travelog this week about my last three weeks, all spent in New Zealand.  However, this morning the plans changed.  As we left our AirBnB in Queenstown on the South Island, a previous client popped in to pick up a raincoat he'd left there.  He asked where we were headed and, when I said Glenorchy at the end of Lake Wakatipu, he suggested we stop on the way at a little piece of paradise.

We did.

And were blown away.

The Little Paradise Lodge sits on he 45th parallel, equidistant from the equator and the South Pole, and a long way from anywhere.  (Click on any photo to enlarge it.)

The 25 cms represents the amount of space every South African would have if standing in a row from here to Pretoria; the 95 cms is the amount of space they would have if standing next to each other around the world. 

It is unobtrusively located next to Highway 6 from Queenstown, but the moment you leave the car, you realise that this is something special.

Lonely Planet has this to say:
Rambling and rustic doesn't begin to describe this unique spot perched by Lake Wakatipu. A quirky and slightly eccentric Swiss guy built it all by himself, from the handmade wooden furniture to the uniquely tiled bathrooms. Outside there's a natural swimming pool and various bird life roaming about to keep you company.
Wonderfully eclectic, this slice of arty paradise is the singular vision of the current owner. 

 In reality, words cannot describe the two or so hectares that comprise the gardens - streams and ponds surrounded by 3,000 roses, 40,000 daffodils, thousands of lilies, a variety of weird and wonderful plants, as well as interesting and quirky sculptures, mainly in yoga poses.

So let's dispense with words and use pictures.

The hanging strands are stone covered string 

Reception at the Lodge

The Moa and Haast's eagle are both extinct.

I guess Blogspot just ran out of storage space - I'll post a second blog for the rest of the photos.