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Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Once upon a time, there was an art conservator who was given a new job. At first, it did not strike her as different from all the other jobs she had done. She restored large numbers of paintings, and holy icons that bore the likeness of saints were nothing new. What was so special about this one? The curator in charge of the picture needed everything explained to him. Why did they send a novice with this important-looking artefact? Everything about this job was strange, including the x-rays they took and the technical images that popped up on her computer.
The conservator soon found out what it was: another picture, hidden for many long centuries, was stuck underneath the one she could see. Why was it hidden, and by whom? She needed some explanation for this mystery, and the curator could only come up with answers she could find for herself. Or so she thought. Finding symbols that needed deciphering was not rare, but these were very unusual. And it seemed that there was someone else who thought so too. Someone, perhaps, whose footsteps could be heard following hers as she walked home through the silent winding streets of Venice, at the dead of night.
Telling a story to describe a story is the perfect way to describe how my forthcoming book starts. Even though you can access Chapter One and read it free on my website, telling it in this way brings a new kind of excitement to me too. Is it possible to be excited about a book that has shared my days for the last two years or so? It dogged my waking moments, baffled my efforts to plot it neatly, defeated my struggle to tell the story smoothly... but I got there in the end.
I re-wrote it several times, and even had to add a whole character one time, with the almost impossible task of weaving him seamlessly through the whole book so no one would notice he was an afterthought!
The book is now out of my hands, and instead of feeling baffled and defeated - which was something that went away when I found that the several re-writes had worked - I feel deflated and bereft. I can't play with it any more. I can't fiddle and re-work and re-write and edit. It's gone off and is in the hands of others as they design, collate and format it for the first print. The characters are what the characters are. The locations are there. It's going to be set in the concrete of publication.
So the story will be told, and readers will, I hope, benefit from the telling. I have striven for a satisfying ending, one that - with some effort - ties up all the ends. And there were many! Entertainment was my aim: and the creation of atmospheres, for readers to enjoy a vicarious trip through some romantic locations and startling situations.
Now one problem remains: how do I conjure the same feeling in my next book? Where shall I find my characters? And where shall I put them? What story shall I tell?
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Monday, August 30, 2010
How can a location solve a problem?
Well - writers like me try to make their readers vividly imagine scenes, action, people and things. It is difficult for a reader to visualise a fictional place unless an author describes it minutely. I try to avoid lengthy descriptions, because I find it slows down the action. So how do I inject atmosphere without the words? Well - I use places like Venice.
So my action can take place in an easily-imagined location, and my readers can concentrate on what is happening, and the feelings and efforts of my protagonists, without getting bogged down with trying to mentally define the location in which it is all taking place. It helps that I have been there a number of times, and that I know how it feels to turn the corner at the public park and come upon the stretch of the lagoon. I know what it's like to stand aside to let people coming the opposite way across a narrow bridge pass, and then descend its steps into a tiny piazza where window boxes are filled with tiny flowers, next to an antique shop whose owner speaks five languages.
Because I have seen, felt, smelled and tasted Venice, I can make it come alive for my readers, whether they have ever been there or not, without needing too many words, because their imagination is already furnished with photos and films that other people have conveniently put in their minds.
Even if you have never been to Venice, it's not hard to picture, because it is one of the most photographed and filmed places on earth: it is easily brought into focus. You can see, in your mind's eye, the canals, the gondolas, the bridges and the little narrow lanes. You can see St Mark's Square, the Rialto Bridge, and the little islands called Murano and Torcello.
Even if you have never been there, you can imagine taking a waterbus and crossing the Grand Canal. You can see the churches in your head, and imagine how my heroine walks home along the traffic-free streets. You can see Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio, and the little shops that sell those beautifully painted and decorated carnival masks.
You can be there in an instant, with the minimum of description required from me.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Why is this? What is happening really - are people losing interest in themselves in favour of celebrities? Are books becoming mere channels for discussion and debate? Perhaps this is simply a fashion or fad. It certainly has been going on for some time. There is a morbid interest in the general public for things that contain some sort of controversy.
Biographies of controversial figures have never sold better. Gossip magazines are the vehicles of sensationalism. Books with some sort of issue or argument can cause a storm and sell millions of copies. Everyone wants to know what the fuss is all about: everyone wants to share their opinion, and buy in on the debate.
Perhaps it is because we live in an argumentative age. Perhaps it is because news travels so far and so fast it's not enough for it to be just news... it's got to raise dust, in the form of an argument. Look what happened to The Da Vinci Code. We look back now and wonder what came first: the media hype, or the debate and discussion? Were the publishers poised for the disputes and discussions, or did they know from the outset they were creating the environment for them?
These questions are interesting ones, and they continue to show their heads every time some stimulating book hits the bookstores. These sensations either last a month or two and disappear, giving place to others, or they live on and tantalise with their staying power to make people talk. Some of this is generated by the PR arms of publishing companies. Some of it is extended by the general need for a sensation. It's a fashion, perhaps. It is certainly food for thought and fodder for conversations.
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Friday, August 27, 2010
TWO - St Luke never met Jesus. It is stated in the Gospel that the described events in Luke's testament were never personally witnessed.
THREE - Luke spoke and wrote excellent Greek, and also probably conversed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
FOUR - It is possible to tell that St Luke was well educated, because of the broad range of vocabulary found in writings such as Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, parts of which are also attributed to the evangelist.
FIVE - St Luke is the patron saint of physicians and painters. A popular legend says the evangelist painted a number of images of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
SIX - According to tradition, the reamins of St Luke were transported to Padua, in Italy sometime in the 12th century.
These six commonly-known things about St Luke tend to rouse interest in ancient times, when travel, communications, everyday domestic comfort, education, worship, entertainment, and literacy were very different to the way we think of them now.
St Luke is often pictured in sacred art. Very often, the artists depicted the evangelist in the clothing of their own period, rather than that of the saint's era.
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Thursday, August 26, 2010
Not if it is done well. Some very good, and very popular, writers are using history to give their modern books depth. Depth that consists of much more than their characters' back story. A few writers who have done this with great success are Robert Goddard, in Days Without Number , AS Byatt, in Possession , and Arturo Perez-Reverte in The Flanders Panel.
Taking these three books as examples, we can see how it is done.
The main observation is that these books are not historical fiction: their main action takes place in current times, and their protagonists are placed in the present. But the mysteries they try to solve, and the material they are fascinated by, takes them on a historical route. Some of what they unearth is true - did happen - so the reader has the added fun of examining something from the past that has a basis in actuality.
Is it entertaining to research as you read fiction? Far from being a distraction, looking things up during or after reading a novel can send a reader on some very fascinating journeys. And it's not just historical events: these authors write in depth about trades, tools, procedures, legends, myths and also cultural aspects that no longer figure much in modern society. Looking them up - and checking their authenticity - can make for some interesting studies.
There's food, music, clothes, jewellery and even books from other times that can be inserted into the fiction of today to make it entralling... intriguing... captivating!
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010
You might say I have started this blog with a very big question! Well, my next thriller, According to Luke, which will be released by my publishers rather soon, presents this question in a subtle way. Today, I'm going to think about the part of the New Testament that deals with the arrival and sojourn of St Paul and St Luke in Malta.
The Acts of the Apostles, believed to have been largely written by Luke, start Paul's voyage to Rome from Adramyttium at 27:1, in about 60AD. In these verses it describes the tempest encountered after passing Cyprus, how the sailors jettisoned a cargo of wheat and four anchors, and how Paul consoled and encouraged the men on board - 276 they were in all. He urged them to pray, and to eat, telling them none would be lost because he had experienced a vision in which he was told they would all be saved.
Paul and Luke's stay on Malta was eventful, and there are many legends and myths about this period in the history of the islands. Luke went on to Rome and stayed with Paul during his imprisonment and trial.
Why is it important that Luke visited Malta? Well - a number of St Luke paintings around the world are attributed to St Luke. He is the patron saint of painters (and also of doctors) because of the legends that tie the name of this disciple to miraculous images of Mary. These are mentioned in According to Luke. There is one of these paintings in Malta: Our Lady of Damascus, which can be viewed in an ancient Greek church in the capital, Valletta.
Icons of this kind figure largely in my new book. Researching this aspect of the inclusions for the novel was one of the most interesting things I had to do to complete the book exactly as I had envisaged while nutting out the plot.
Why not visit my information pages and read more about the facts I have included in the novel? It will fill you in while the book is being produced, and you can be among the first to get it when it comes out.
Smells, tastes and noises
Locations can play a very important part in fiction: the places where the action takes place can arouse nostalgia in readers, or excitement, or a sense of armchair travel. When readers recognise the name of a place in a title, they are intrigued if it is a place they have visited on holiday, or if it is where they spent their childhood vacations. A book called "Romance at St Paul's Bay" would attract a great number of people who spent their adolescence walking up and down the promenade from St Paul's Bay to Bugibba, in Malta.
Locations are not only sights: they have smells and noises. There is nothing quite like the soft splash of an oar in the water very early in the morning, accompanied by the scent of drying seaweed and the slight hint of putrefaction, coming from old bait lying on the concrete wharf, at the Menqa in St Paul's Bay. Later in the day, there are the additions of frying fish, and the smell of hobz biz-zejt coming through open doors and kiosks.
I remember buying one of those seasoned rolls - filled with white beans, tuna, onion, tomato and lashings of olive oil - and a Kinnie, from the Sirens Water Polo Club. That is so long ago! But I still remember what it smelled like, and the taste is in my mouth now. I put some of these smells and tastes in my collection of short stories about Malta called Counting Churches. Hopefully, it will be out as an eBook very soon. Only two of the stories are available now. But you can get them very cheaply.
Noises are not as memory-jogging as smells and tastes - at least not for me. They are the hardest thing to include in a novel, but I do see that doing so effectively would make for a more lifelike story. I think there are a few noises in According to Luke, my forthcoming puzzle thriller that has the Rabat Priory in it as a location.
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Friday, August 20, 2010
It has been a while since I took a holiday in Malta - six years to be exact. While I was there, I realised that the atmosphere I tried to capture in my first novel is all but gone. The Malta I wrote about in 'Death in Malta' hardly exists anymore. One has to drive into the inland areas and seek out places that are imbued with the ambiance I tried to capture for Gregory Worthington, the protagonist.
He loved what he found: little villages reached by rickety buses, built around surprisingly magnificent churches. They were populated by a motley bunch of characters, headed by the parish priest, the local teacher, a plumber, the president of the band club (there must be a band club) and the owner of the local hardware store. The men gathered in tiny pubs and the women gossiped on the church forecourt.
Does this Malta still exist? There was no trace of it on my last visit, and my guess is that it is even less evident today. Perhaps in parts of Gozo, Malta's sister island, the landscapes and scenarios I invented for my novel are still there. They are part and parcel of what Malta means to thousands of emigrants who left the islands after World War II for economic reasons: employment was scarse. Agriculture eked a scant living. They took off in droves to places in the new world, where everything was bigger and potential still existed. Little did they dream that Malta would blossom into the thriving affluent place it is today.
Tourism, the free port, manufacturing and value-adding have made of this tiny country in the European Union a veritable mecca for tourists, and it is packed almost year-round by thrill-seekers. This is not what my protagonist wanted at all. He sought a quiet place in which to revive his flagging career as an author. And he found it in a tiny nameless village that still had dry-stone walls, prickly-pear hedges and a formidable church, on whose steps he discovered hints and suggestions that led him to writing his new novel.
The Malta my protagonist fell in love with is possibly still there, but readers of my book will need to search for it, just like Gregory searched for secrets and mysteries surrounding the disappearance of a little boy. They will certainly find it in my book: it is there to be felt, experienced, and perhaps missed by those who remember it so well.
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Monday, August 16, 2010
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The Puzzle Thriller
If you liked the Da Vinci Code, you must have an idea what attracted you to that kind of thriller. Was it the breathless chase? Was it the mention of well-known pieces of art? Or was it the locations, described in a way that made you feel you were there... and made you recognise them when you actually went?
Different readers like that kind of book for different reasons. Some are disappointed with the writing, but persist because the story is such a good one. Some keep reading because - although the characters are a bit unrealistic - they find enough that is entertaining and thrilling. Some are absolutely fascinated by the conspiracies and historical threads that lead into the present. Many find the political detail overwhelming, or the historical facts boring, but like the concept of the modern discovery of old mysteries.
How much of it is true, we ask ourselves? Writers in this genre often weave in a lot that is authentic, genuine and verifiable, which makes us wonder about the rest. If there is really a chapel at Roslyn in Scotland, and it is really full of mysterious carvings, then the rest of the story seems plausible. If there are other books about the Merovingian line, and a lot of the material in the thriller can be looked up, then perhaps there is some foundation to its premise.
Dan Brown used a lot of material that can be looked up, and there are other fiction writers like him. I am such a one: I find a premise that could conceivably happen, if the circumstances are right. I use props that exist in the real world: these can be paintings, music, food, artfacts and tools. I also use medical conditions, procedures and scientific tests that also exist in the world outside my books. It can all be researched and verified, which is great fun.
The story feels all the more realistic and plausible if it is built on these kinds of verifiable blocks. Adding a story that is intricate and woven in and out of these real and true aspects is very difficult but also great fun.
According to Luke is such a story. I have used a perfectly feasible premise and found locations, tools, artefacts and pieces of art that exist and used them together in an inextricable weave. The resulting story may seem controversial to some, astounding to others... and merely a good story to the rest.
Whichever kind of reader you are, According to Luke should supplement your reading matter if you already like the genre, or lead you onward to discovering other writers who create this kind of story.
Thursday August 12, 2010
"Like madness is the glory of life," wrote Shakespeare. He must have written it either when he despaired of finding empathy and someone to really talk to, or when he had turned a corner and suddenly found both, all wrapped up in the one person.
Finding a kindred spirit is a rare thing for most of us. I am trying to find it for my next protagonist, who has fallen in a bit of a rut. I cannot make him read Shakespeare, because he is a jaded photojournalist, who reads National Geographics and camera manuals. I can't really make him meet some warm and understanding woman - not right now, at least - because that would mean the end of the book, really. I have hardly written past the establishment portion of the first third.
The poor man is stuck at this cafe in Rome, thinking desperate thoughts, and I can't find anything that might lift him out of his present inertia. Perhaps I need an incident: something noisy. Noisy enough to rise above the background hubbub that is so much a part of Rome.
Perhaps I should present him with a scene of blood and gore, crowds and shouting, mess and disaster. Just when he's left his camera in the car, which is tightly trapped between three others, about a kilometre away, in the double-parked insanity that does not allow this man ever to stop where he wants to be.
The plot, with its various ins and outs, is more or less there in my head. And scribbled on the back of an Avon order form, an old Woolworths receipt and a school permission slip somewhere. But I must get him off that cafe chair, away from his second doppio ristretto, before he can do anything else.
So I have started another novel! Yes - this is my third try. You fall in a kind of rut when one novel goes off to production, and starting another is never an easy thing. You miss your old characters, who you knew so well, and the locations that went so seamlessly with what you wanted to happen. Inventing new stuff and making up developments is far from fun.
Tomorrow might feel better.
Saturday August 8, 2010
Submitting a manuscript can be a nerve-racking experience. It's a process that could take months. Once emails are sent, comments received, and doubt expressed, one could not blame a writer for feeling uncertain about anything written, let alone a novel of about 300 pages.
It could mean a return to the drawing board, something I have experienced more than once. I did write a second novel, but it went exactly nowhere. It does not even merit mention here.
My third? I worked so hard on the manuscript that I started to look at myself in a different light. I was turning into a different kind of writer: one that sought advice. I even sent the thing out to a band of readers, wondering how much of their comments I would stomach and how much of their advice I would take.
Surprisingly, I could agree with a lot that was said - and scribbled in the margins - of the bulldog clipped pages. I re-wrote. I re-read.
Sending the fresh manuscript off to my publishers was a matter of clicking the mouse... and waiting the legendary four weeks.
The response was not bad but it did send me back to the word processor. It took another good look at the writing, which brought on another re-shuffle of events, more consideration of how sentences were phrased, and the surprising addition of a whole new character, who was woven through the story with not a little trepidation and a lot of hard work.
It was worth it. My editors at BeWrite Books liked what they saw, and offered a contract. Brilliant. Nothing quite matches that first feeling - not even landing a big whiting that flaps energetically on the jetty. According to Luke will be released soon - watch this space for more.
Sigh of relief? A huge one. But the work does not stop - promotion and publicity is next, and hatching the next novel. Already, the plot has been loosely sketched out at a very crumby and crowded breakfast table, and the characters are embryos in my head. Getting to know them will be a challenge, as it always is. They are slippery and elusive until that first dirty draft is wrapped up.
Intimacy with the characters will evolve as I edit and re-write... sometimes this takes 25 revisions. According to Luke went through more than that many, over a period of about 26 months.
Stay with me: read According to Luke and record your impressions on my blog or wherever you can leave a review. The minute it's released and available online, a notice will appear on my front page.
Thursday November 5, 2009
Today I added a reviews page. I remembered exactly where I kept them, and zoomed right in to the correct spot. Don't think my study is that neat and organised: quite the opposite. There's got to be a room in the house (or three) where chaos is allowed a long and dusty reign.
Crowning this chaos are a borrowed guitar and a retrenched trombone. Poor instruments - perhaps they need a niche in a story somewhere. I think there is a story about a cello in the second book you will find on the Reviews page. The Bookbinder's Brother has been out of print since publishers Jacobyte Books called it a day. Together with Counting Churches and The Astronomer's Pig, it will be resurrected very soon.
Why not right now? (Isn't that typical... someone always shouts why not right now from the back of the room. They're usually under twenty.) Right now is not the time - I am giving all three books a once-over, which is not quickly done. They will see the light of day in 2010, and all those who have asked for them will be able to read them.
Image courtesy www.aad.gov.au
SUNDAY November 1, 2009
Food in FictionOur choices make us who we are: we don't all like the same things. What we like to read, listen to or do on the weekend... these are all facets of our make-up. An author thinks subconsciously about all these things when creating characters.
I like to think my characters are individuals in their own right, and they live and breathe inside my head. They take on aspects that develop gradually, just as the plot of the book develops gradually, no matter how swiftly I put down the elements in my working synopsis.
What my characters eat and drink might not have a fundamental effect on the plot, but it does make them plausible and alive to the reader. A vegetarian character, or one who drinks too much, or a personality that gives a lot of importance to what goes on her plate: these aspects lend reality to a novel.
Although it is fiction, we all need to feel that a book is alive: that what happens in it could happen. That its characters behave like real people. It's the only way a reader can relate and identify with a made-up cast of personalities.
The story might not hinge on fish and chips wrapped in paper, or a rack of lamb with new potatoes and beans, or a custard pie liberally sprinkled with cinnamon, but when written about as being chosen, eaten and commented about by a character, the dishes take on a worldly aspect of sensation that is so vital to modern fiction.
In her novel A Noble Radiance, by Donna Leon, the protagonist sits down with his father-in-law to a complicated meal at a Venetian restaurant. Each dish, and how the person enjoyed it, is described with relish and expertise. It is a scene that means more than fish or wine: it sends the reader messages and details that work better than a plain description of mood or attitude. It makes the book come alive.
TUESDAY October 27, 2009
Plot developmentToday I added a character to my new draft. It was a matter of necessity: a subplot is an important thing, and the addition of a plot twist needed someone else in the story.
So I returned to the top and wove him in all the way through, to as far as I have got. It was much easier than I thought. Let's face it: it's a lot easier to add a character than to decide to eliminate one. Still, it did feel as if I was staring down some sort of precipice: Dingli Cliffs, indeed.
I now have to nut out his personality a bit more fully: I do this better in my head than in writing. Whether to make him nasty or nice is a big consideration, but seeing I am not even a third of the way into the story, perhaps I should let him develop like the others. It is true that not all players turn out the way you imagine them at the beginning. The plot sometimes necessitates a baddie or two that you did not originally create. Or a helping hand who cannot just materialise out of nothing in Chapter 23! Still, they do kind of flesh themselves out as I go.
My present work in progress is about a series of paintings that need to be looked at in one after the other. I still have doubts about the sanity of this, because - apart from the fact I have to take my protagonist on a wild chase through Italy - the research is already bewildering: I have found some altogether intriguing stuff I never knew existed.
Shall I weave it into my story?
Pic courtesy Beth Buehlman
MONDAY October 26, 2009
MUSIC IN FICTIONI like to make my characters hear things. Perhaps fiction should have sound effects too: sound effects in words, written by the author not simply as padding or background, but as an indication of what the character listening to the sound effect is like. How we react to certain noises and sounds is built into our personality. Our experiences are certainly not limited to the merely visual.
Music is, like other aspects of art, something we are very subjective about. We have no idea, we say, why we like the music we do. But if we think hard, our favourite pieces are linked to certain experiences, certain milestones, and to our childhood. I want to make this point in fiction, by giving my characters music choices, likes and dislikes, that will turn them into people in my readers' eyes.
It is possible to flesh out a character in a book by making them startle easily to loud noises, or make them happy when they hear a sea breeze riffling through the trees. Giving them certain favourite music to listen to might make a reader relate or even identify with them.
What would you think of a character in a book who loved Beethoven, or Wagner? There could be one who liked Led Zepplin or Eric Clapton. Would it change your idea of a character if you read they hated Mozart and absolutely adored Frank Sinatra?
Finding a character in a book with musical favourites similar to yours would make the book special in your eyes. Perhaps my next novel will have that effect on someone.
SUNDAY October 25, 2009
ART IN FICTION
These hands were drawn by an artist who becomes significant in the novel I am now writing. This work in progress is another art history mystery: I seem to enjoy writing the kind of book that needs a lot of research into history of art. It’s harking back to my education, I suppose. Also, it’s one of the things I like best, and it’s always more comfortable writing about the things with which you have some sort of truck. It’s up to you to discover which artist I am talking about. Or you can wait the necessary couple of years until the published novel shows its cover. It’s a frustratingly long wait, but processes are processes, and there are no short cuts. Just as in the writing, in the production of anything there are certain stages one cannot afford to miss.
Today I am listening to the music of Malcolm Williamson. His piece called Azure is very difficult to find: there is only one known recording in the whole world. But I got my hands on it thanks to the amazing friendliness of the presenter and researcher at ABC fm Classic. They sent me in the right direction, and the CD arrived in record time (no pun intended).
SATURDAY October 24, 2009YELLOW CROCKERY
It's been a long day: a working synopsis for my work in progress is all nutted out. Family suggestions are extremely helpful, since plotting is not my forte first thing in the morning. Getting the requisite two subplots and sorting out the archetypes of my characters seems easy when the breakfast table is gradually filling with crumbs and empty cups.
The yellow teapot is a great success, the character in its dents and obvious venerability adds a certain something to our breakfasts and high teas. It is capacious, giving us a good four mugs of tea. And it goes with everything else, which is vital in this household. How did we ever do without an enamel teapot? The one on top of the kitchen cupboard does not count of course, even though its dark blue colour will go well with the rest of my crockery. It is above all a display item, although it has character and many signs of being loved. But do not be surprised if I mention we have used it, or if it surfaces in one of my books. My yellow china teapot (or one very much like it) has found its way into my finished novel, whose title, of course, I cannot yet divulge to you.
As I write, the complete manuscript is on its way in a cardboard box that fits it perfectly, across the miles, up high, on a plane. Where is it going? Never mind - eventually it will appear in print and will arrive safe and sound into your hands. I'm sure you cannot wait. In the meantime, Death in Malta will keep you entertained. There are many places you can get it on the web. The eBook is available at a very low price at BeWrite Books.
Between now and Christmas, I have to complete a rough first draft of my new book. It usually takes me about two months to set down a new draft, and I already have about 9 000 words that are more or less usable. My first draft is usually quite long, with about 20 000 words ending up on the cutting room floor. When I go back and edit, rewrite and redraft, I end up adding another seven or eight thousand.
Watch this space for more.