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remember Ray Bradbury. Though he’s been thought of more as a
science fiction writer in recent years, right from the start and throughout his
writing career, Ray Bradbury was interested in the macabre, the bizarre and
the unusual, all seen through the lens of his uplifting poetic imagination.
Attribution: photo by Alan Light
Introduction to Volume 1 of his collected short stories sets the scene. He
takes us back to 1932 when, as a twelve year old, he met a remarkable performer
who was part of a ‘seedy, two-bit’ carnival that came to town:
being fired with ten billion volts of pure blue sizzling power. Reaching out
into the audience, his eyes flaming, his white hair standing on end, sparks
leaping between his smiling teeth, he brushed an Excalibur sword over the heads
of the children, knighting them with fire. When he came to me, he tapped me on
both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightening jumped into me, Mr
Electrico cried: “Live forever!”’
two nights, the twelve year old got to know the entertainer who told him he was
a defrocked Presbyterian minister out of Cairo, Illinois. Then, Mr Electrico
came up with the really surprising news. They had met before, he said, on the
battlefield of the Ardennes in 1918. “And
here you are, born again, in a new body, with a new name. Welcome back!”
uplifted by not one but two gifts from Mr Electrico – the gift of having lived
once before (and of being told about it) …and the gift of trying somehow to
live forever. He continues: ‘A few weeks
later I started writing my first short stories about the planet Mars. From that
time to this, I have never stopped. God bless Mr Electrico, the catalyst,
wherever he is.’
Ray Bradbury was then, I began reading his stories. His science fiction stories
came later for me; what captured my imagination first was the macabre mystery
of the stories in ‘The October Country’, ‘I Sing The Body Electric!’ and the
story that turned into a novel, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. In these
stories he draws on the surreal imagination set off by that carnival encounter
back in 1932, producing quirky, challenging encounters that stretch the
imagination. But this is a forgiving horror. As in all of his writing there is
an optimism that rises despite the most difficult of odds and cuts through the
he didn’t find a way of living forever as Mr Electrico had demanded. He died
last year, aged 91. But he lives on in his wonderful stories, written in that
clear, inspirational voice that is a model to so many authors today.
his hope of inspiring others.
Other inspirations include Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial, George Orwell 1984 and Animal Farm, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley …
male variety, I grew up on the novels of Alistair Maclean. What appealed to me
about his books wasn’t just the exciting adventure plots, but also how they
nearly always contained a ‘whodunit’ element. The best of them had a disparate
group of people trapped in a life-threatening situation, and you always knew
from early on that one of them was a traitor or a saboteur of some kind; part
of the fun was trying to work out which of them it was. It was like Agatha
Christie with military weapons.
similar. A group of disaffected former soldiers are planning to assassinate the
Russian president at a summit meeting in Estonia on the Baltic Sea. Which of
the three British MI6 agents trying to foil the plot is actually working with
the terrorists? To complicate matters, I made the treacherous MI6 agent one of
the point-of-view characters. To complicate them further still, I included both
women and men among the suspects, so the sex of the traitor was in doubt.
point-of-view scenes by referring to our rogue agent throughout as ‘the
Jacobin’, a nickname allocated by one of the other characters. Trickier was the
task of disguising the person’s sex, and it involved a fair amount of stylistic
and grammatical gymnastics to avoid all reference to ‘he’ or ‘she’. Not that
this has any bearing on the finished product – readers want to enjoy a good
story, not marvel at how cleverly the author has wielded the language, unless
they’re fans of Martin Amis – but I actually found this quite a stimulating
exercise as a writer.
assassination chosen by the terrorists. In an odd way, it was like one of the
central puzzles in a country-house murder mystery, except the question wasn’t,
‘How could the murderer possibly have done it when the room was locked from the
inside?’ but ‘How are the terrorists going to kill the president when every
point of access to him has been anticipated and closed?’ This posed a serious
problem. I had an idea how to pull it off, but it took extensive (and
admittedly very haphazard) research online to find out if a particular piece of
technology existed that might serve my purposes. And I did want to stay within
the bounds of plausibility; I wasn’t writing science fiction.
terrorists did in fact exist, I needed to find out more about it. And
everywhere I looked, I found the same basic information, but not the in-depth,
down-and-dirty detail I wanted. I asked a couple of ex-soldiers I knew, but it
was beyond them. I joined a few online forums to pick the brains of the
military eggheads there, but had no luck. One person even emailed me with a
friendly warning that I had to be careful about asking questions like this
online, as they might come to the attention of shadowy outfits monitoring the
web for signs of terrorist activity.
information about a particular weapons system was so secret that only the
manufacturers and their military sponsors were aware of it, then I could safely
speculate about the nuts and bolts in my book without worrying about looking
sloppy in my research to the average reader. This works as a general principle
for writers of fiction, I think: do your research, but don’t be so terrified
you might get a few details wrong that it takes your focus away from writing a
forces or intelligence services of a certain Middle Eastern country and decides
to read my novel, I’d welcome your feedback and corrections. With not a little
trepidation, I should add.
Purkiss’s job is straightforward.
|Author Tim Stevens|
up in Johannesburg. He lives in west Essex, England, with his wife and
daughters, and works as a doctor in the National Health Service.
Ratcatcher, and both it and its sequel Delivering Caliban, featuring the return
of John Purkiss, are available in all ebook formats. Severance Kill, a thriller
without John Purkiss, was published in November 2012.
espionage novella Reunion and novelette Snout, and his collections of macabre
short stories, Woodborn: Six Tales Of Unease and Quarry: Six Tales Of Dread.
alternate history setting throws up twin challenges – to tell a tense, fast-paced
story with a punchy ending plus get the historical background right.
Historical? Well, yes. Unless a writer knows their history, they can’t alternate
it. Knowledgeable readers out there will be disappointed if a writer makes a
serious blooper when projecting history in a different direction. And disappointing
the reader is a writing crime.
Alternate history stories, whether packed
with every last piece of information about their world or lighter where the
alternative world is used as a setting with bare detail released only when
crucial, need to follow three ‘rules’: nail the point of divergence from the
real time line that has carried on in our world; show how the alternate world
looks and works; and flesh out the consequences of the split. Writing crime,
mystery and thrillers in this environment ain’t easy, but it’s fun!
or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers are all
genders, classes, races and ages and stand in various places along the personal
morality ruler. But whether corrupt or clean, they must act like a recognisable
form of cop. They catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a
on history before the point of divergence as C J Sansom does in Dominion. But he then goes on to stretch
and distort the functions of the Special Branch we know into a Gestapo-like
force and the Special Constabulary into the Auxiliaries similar to the French Second
World War milice. In my own earliest
story in the series set in the mid-twentieth century in a country founded
sixteen hundred years ago by Roman refugees, the town cops are still called
‘vigiles’ after the ancient Roman ones; then, they caught thieves and robbers,
put out fires and captured runaway slaves. They were supported by the Urban
Cohorts who acted as a heavy-duty anti-riot force and the even the Praetorian
Guard if necessary. The modern vigiles in my earliest alternate story carry out
the functions of a police force that anybody would recognise today. And there
is still a Praetorian Guard, but a very modern one. Both services have to deal
with the criminal mind whether rational, completely disconnected from societal
norms, opportunistic or terrorist.
when writing a series, is to let organisations develop. My vigiles are
disbanded then re-formed as ‘custodes’ in the three later stories following a
catastrophic civil war. They evolve in a similar way that London Bow Street
runners gave way to Sir Robert Peel’s Bobbies who in turn developed into the
modern Metropolitan Police.
history stories can be quite different to those in our real timeline, but they
must be consistent with history of that society while remaining plausible for
the reader. My alternate world has examining magistrates (echoing ancient Roman
practice) and a twenty-eight day post-arrest, pre-charge detention period which
police services in our timeline would probably love! Questioning is robust, but
there’s no gratuitous physical brutality – things have moved on since ancient
Roman times when the punishment officer would take a criminal off into the corner and beat him into a pulp. In the 21st century, the approach is more psychological, wearing the detainee down, but the odd slap creeps in.
environment, whether in this world, off-planet or in a different time, using local
words for police, e.g. ‘Schupo’, ‘carabinieri’ or ‘custodes’ enriches the
setting. But the writer has to explain in a non-obvious way. An example from my
“Kriminalpolizeikommissar Huber – GDKA/OK”. Juno, he was one of the German
Federated States organised crime investigators. We were in the big time here. I
glanced up at him, but he looked even grimmer, if it was possible. I decided to
for slang, which naturally peppers any thriller with police and military
are a cross little scarab, aren’t you?’
by using scarab, the derogatory word for the custodes. I might deal with a lot
of shit in my job, but I was no dung-beetle.
police thriller, writers should at least read around the basics; detection and
arrest procedures, forensics, interviewing and case development. For political
or military thrillers, the same applies for structures, chain of command,
intelligence procedures and weaponry. Apart from watching television and movies
and reading other writers’ books, I find Wikipedia is an excellent place to
start if researching a specific force, police service or weapon. After that, most
libraries and bookstores will have real life accounts written by former members
of those services. For legal background, you could start with the lawyers’
associations and see if they have any public education programmes, similarly
the probation and social services. If you ask reasonably intelligent, specific
questions (make a list!), serving and retired professionals will usually be
delighted to help you, especially if you mention them in the acknowledgements.
If you’re writing in a historical whodunit or
thriller, then as well as the reading, you are probably going to become good
friends with your county archivist and possibly the British Library staff. As
you have no living professional to consult, you should find at least two preferably
three sources for your information. Law enforcement officers’ roles, powers and
practices varied hugely in the past and if policing existed at all in some past
eras, it was often carried out by the military. You soon get to know your
Tacitus from your Pliny or Caesar!
Crime, mystery and thrillers are
one of the most popular genres in our bookshops, whether online or bricks and
mortar. Whether you have a historical, contemporary or alternative setting,
research and meticulous accuracy are the watchwords for keeping on the right
side of the writing law.
|Author Alison Morton|
Alison Morton has a
master’s degree in history, has served time as a translator and soldier, and is
a deep-steeped ‘Roman nut’.
Currently living in France, she writes Roman-themed
alternate history thrillers and her first novel, INCEPTIO, will be published by
SilverWood Books in March 2013.
Watch this space!
character for what is now my novel Code
of Darkness: a mysterious loner-turned-vigilante known only by the name
Rage. I had recently graduated from
college, was living in the suburbs with my parents, and commuting on a train to
downtown Chicago. I decided the train
would be my “writing studio.”
“Rage walked into the shadowy bar with one thing in mind: vengeance.” The line contained a lot of angst, energy,
and foreshadowing for what would be the first chapter of my writing life. I wrote the chapter in a few days, happy with
the result, and moved on to write other chapters, getting about a hundred pages
suddenly found a lot of other things to do with my time. Without the long commute to give me a
“studio” in which to write, the book project was tabled for a long time.
suburbs and started a family. I was back
on the train, so I thought I’d try picking up where I’d left off. I found the old manuscript and began to put
down new material. But I decided to go
an entirely new direction. I scrapped
old characters and storylines, and wove in new ones: a Chicago cop, a rogue NSA
agent, a government conspiracy. My goal
was to make the story more of a page-turning thriller.
that centered around Rage stayed mostly intact.
That first chapter, the one in which I’d first introduced him, and most
importantly that first line, was always going to be my starting point, I’d
words. Yes – 198,000. I was advised to get it down to about half
that. Half my creation was going to be
on the chopping block? No way was I
going to do that.
going to have to. So I began removing
chapters, storylines, characters. In
some cases I was simply trimming fat. Two
revisions later, at 123,000 words, I discovered an angle that would probably
cut another ten to fifteen thousand words easily: introduce the three main
characters together in the same chapter, putting them in a perilous situation
that would set the tone for the book.
The problem with this was, what would this mean for my cherished
original starting point?
second chapter, maybe later in the story, but nothing worked. It just didn’t fit into the story
anymore. And the problem was, the new
first chapter didn’t just cut the word count, it also gave the story a much
better starting point.
to that original first chapter, and my story became a thousand times better for
it. It will always have a home in the
first draft of Code of Darkness, and
if enough people are interested, maybe I’ll post it on my blog someday.
were with your first novel: how long the first draft was, did you cut anything,
and if so how much … and most importantly, what was the biggest or most
difficult change you made?
August. You can find out more by
visiting www.codeofdarkness.com, or
visiting Facebook and searching on “code of darkness.”
Chris is also offering a FREE eBook version of Code of Darkness to the person with the best, funniest, cutest comment below. Leave your email and he’ll contact you.
or e-book edition, please check out: http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?fListingClass=0&fSearch=code+of+darkness
You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
– he’d love to hear from you. More about Chris:
Some time after returning to Chicago he began attending writers workshops at StoryStudio Chicago, where he wrote two character studies, both of which have since been developed into key characters in Code of Darkness.
Chris now lives outside Chicago with his wife Jenny and their two children, Luke and Emma. You might catch him working away on his second novel while commuting on his morning train into the city.
Only one person, the silent man financing the operation, knows the true nature of the experiment. Although unaware of his true identity, Alastair comes to realize his foe will stop at nothing to see the experiment through to its completion.