Category Archives: IndieHorror

The times they are a-changin

So, a few things have happened recently. Sadly, Steve Jobs died. I visited the Beamish Museum in northeast England and I saw Bob Dylan in concert. Work continues (slowly) on my second novel. Quite possibly, these are all unrelated, but you know how life is. Sometimes, the connections seem to be there, begging for you to write about them, to give them meaning.

So, in reverse order.

My second novel is (honestly) progressing, but slowly. It’s the topic I’ll cover in least detail here, but within it I cover a fairly wide time period. Fortunately, it’s a time period that I’ve lived through – and so have first-hand experience of. I think this can lull a writer into a false sense of security. Yes, I remember the 1970s and 1980s fairly well, I think – but it’s easy to make mistakes.

Can I really remember how, as children, we used to arrange to meet – without having mobile phones? Indeed, many of us didn’t have landlines. How I managed to complete my homework without access to the Internet? This kind of detail is easy to remember with a little effort, but hard to write effortlessly.

I’m 50. That doesn’t feel old to me, but I’ve lived through some staggering changes. Not to me personally, though I now have a soft centre and less dependable vision. I’m thinking worldwide. I’ll come on to some of those shortly, but first I’ll cover something that’s been around all of my life. Well, not something, someone. Bob Dylan’s been making music since I was a toddler. He’s 70 – he probably got laid before I was born.

I was fortunate enough to see him in concert, for the second time, last night. What’s amazing about Dylan live is that his songs are seldom the same. Well, they have the same words and general direction, but they’re frequently rearranged. That’s quite interesting – he’s been around for 70 years, progressing musically all of the time (sometimes being rejected by an established audience because of abandoning one musical genre for another). So, if he were a character in a novel (or perhaps used as a reference anchor) we’d experience his journey along with our own. But because he rearranges many of his songs as he sees fit (well, they are his) he remains an unpredictable moving target. I hope I can say the same at 70.

This is consistent with my view of writing about people – they’re so darned inconsistent. When you make them behave according to a prescribed pattern, they’re not really believable any more.

Still, in this piece, Dylan’s simply our touchstone – perhaps in the way Kate Bush was used in Starter for Ten.

A more central character is Steve Jobs. Dead at just 56, too young in anyone’s book and certainly not enough life for someone so restless, so driven, so creative. (Although, as was observed of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, “the light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long” – and he did burn so very, very bright.)

Steve’s connections to me? Well, not much more than many of you. I use an Apple computer – although that wasn’t always the case. I own an iPod, an iPad and an iPhone. I don’t mind if you mock me.

Ah – but the connection is tighter than that. I complained to Steve directly about iBooks – and he forwarded my e-mail to the person in charge, asking them to get in touch so I could express my views more clearly. Still not much of a connection, though.

Wind back the clock to when I was at school and I had two clear choices: to write (most probably as a journalist) or to become a graphic designer. I chose the latter and went to art college. Steve was only a little older than me, so he’s not yet got around to creating the thing that would change my working life.

I studied typography. This was only 30-odd years ago, but at the time, setting metal type was still the norm. I learned to set type by hand, in a stick (which means learning to read upside down and backwards, no kidding). I learned that upper case and lower case are so-called because of where they were kept in the wooden case – a kind of massive drawer with compartments for each letter. That the spaces between lines were expanded with leading, so called because they were padded out with strips of lead. Type is beautiful, elegant. Words convey meaning and beauty, but the right type can give them a sense of being.

I also painted type by hand (using a brush, if it was above 12pt, or a pen if it was below). Hand-drawn type wasn’t good enough for reproduction, only for rough designs – but it was still a required skill that the tutor could tell exactly which typeface had been drawn.

Letraset existed, but its use was not permitted. We did hear tell of computers. Vast things, which companies were trying to make small enough to use in the office and home. We laughed. What on Earth would we use one of those for?

We laughed because we lacked vision.

In his (retrospectively moving) address to students at Stanford University, Steve Jobs cited how he also studied type, drew it, loved it. This love of type inspired him to want his computers to use proportional fonts for display and print. When personal computers were new, this hadn’t been the case – we had fixed-width fonts and no typographical control.

Apple ushered in (with the help of Adobe, Aldus and Quark) the era of desktop publishing. What had previously taken teams of specialists to do (layout artists, finished artists, repro people and more) could now all be done on one machine.

I use such a machine pretty much every day of my life to earn a living. True, I now mostly create websites – though I still do design for print also. (Actually, more than half of my work is now copywriting.)

It’s not all thanks to Steve Jobs – but he played one of the biggest parts in it. And I love it. I love the total control working on every single element of a design, from one machine, can deliver.

I also write, as I already mentioned. The same machine is my typewriter – and I can move my manuscript from word processor to page layout easily, making it available in print or on Kindle. My children, who can’t recall a world without computers, don’t see in the same way I do quite how amazing this is or quite how much people such as Steve Jobs have changed our lives.

So finally, to Beamish Museum, where I came face-to-face with a Victorian printshop. I smiled with nostalgia as the gentleman, younger than my eldest son, patiently explained how the letterpress machines worked. They had a working Cropper, a machine so notoriously dangerous to use that the phrase ‘come a cropper’ is now part of our everyday speech.

Then I realised. Print hadn’t really changed that much since it had been invented. For hundreds of years, the process got faster, but was essentially the same. Metal type, inked up, added to paper. Litho printing brought more speed. Phototypesetting brought clearer type. Desktop publishing blew it all out of the water. What I realised was this – I was a piece of history. One of the last people to learn how to use all printing technologies. That’s how fast the pace of change was – I learned how to set metal type for letterpress, phototypeset for gravure and litho print and desktop publish for litho and electronic delivery formats such as PDF.

I’m 50. That’s all. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press sometime around 1440. Yes, it evolved, but not really that much. Most of the change happened in the last 50 years.

That’s the challenge of writing across any kind of timescale – understanding the magnitude of change. It’s not just a question of trying to avoid anachronisms. Change is everywhere. Change permeates everything: across the world, in culture, music, politics, attitudes, technology – everything. It’s a challenge to capture just how people embrace and adapt to that change – quickly forgetting what life was like before – without downloads, CDs, cassette tapes, 8-track and vinyl records. I’m sure Bob Dylan remembers, because he recorded for all of those formats – and I bought his music on most of them.

Meanwhile, as I design brochures and websites on my Mac, I download Bob Dylan albums using Apple’s iTunes. There’s a kind of symmetry to that.

Research the facts to enrich the fiction

There’s one vital part of novel-writing which potentially doesn’t involve any actual writing: research.

I say “potentially” because the need for research, the type of research and the amount of research depends very much on the subject of your novel.

So, for a novel which is based in a familiar location (your home city or town), using characters who are familiar to you, very little research may be required. Or perhaps you’re writing about an entirely fictional world – one with twin suns, populated by steam-powered robots. In such a novel, research may be largely irrelevant, since the world is entirely of your own invention.

For the rest of us, research is vitally important.

The danger of pressing ahead without research is that you’ll be creating characters and plot based on assumptions and third-hand information. Any assumptions will be – largely – based on media you’ve consumed: television, films and books. Fictional portrayals are not to be trusted: you might research thoroughly, others might not.

Any third-hand information is also not to be trusted – let’s face it, in court of law, it’s called hearsay, and it’s not permissible as evidence.

There’s only one solution: go to the source.

Research is time-consuming, challenging and often extremely inconvenient to your partly constructed plot and characters (since these will already be based on assumptions and third-hand information). But, to an open mind, research can also be enormously rewarding – enriching your work beyond measure.

Let me give you some examples from my own work.

In my first novel, The Well, one of the things I needed to research was exactly how police search for a missing person. My only experience of this was from television shows, so I made the normal assumptions when planning my characters and sketching out the plot.

Once writing was underway, I needed to nail both plot and characters – to underpin them with facts. I arranged to meet a policeman.

(Most people are more than happy to help with your research. People enjoy talking about their own jobs and are happy to contribute to your work.)

We chatted about police procedure and I gathered the facts needed for my storyline. During the conversation, several bombshells were dropped. Now, once you’re in possession of this new information, it seems obvious – how could you not have seen that? Yet before this, you could never have guessed it.

Bombshell one related to how open the police are with the parents of a missing child. My personal experience of police is that they are helpful and open – but when a child goes missing, said my interviewee, “everyone is a suspect” and we feed out information in a way to benefit the investigation. Obvious – when you know it.

Bombshell two was how the families of abducted children react. In many cases, rather than pulling together, the additional trauma can tear them apart. In the absence of someone to blame, couples can turn on each other – and old, hidden grievances can surface. Again, obvious – when you know it.

I’m currently researching for my second novel. Speaking to a pathologist was rewarding and gruesome in a coldly clinical kind of way – and enormously enlightening. There’s a world of difference between the television portrayal of pathology and what happens in the reality.

I also needed to speak to someone who understood the personal, professional and family life of a vicar. I could have gone to a vicar, but I suspected I’d get a less filtered view from a close family member – in this case I spoke to the widow of a vicar.

We discussed the proposed character – a minor player who makes a few key contributions to the plot and character motivations who will, however, be important in a later book.

Again, some of my assumptions were simply wrong. One of these was that my vicar, who is at the point of retirement, would settle into a house nearby and attend his own church, sometimes giving ‘guest sermons’. Well, that would be nice. Except, in the UK Church of England, that rarely happens. Vicars are encouraged to retire to a different parish – after all, the vicar will have been one of the spiritual leaders of his/her own parish for many years; he will have loyal followers, views, opinions and so forth. A new vicar may work differently and it doesn’t help to have the previous helmsman hanging around. Obvious – when you know it.

I’d also planned a sweet scene where the old vicar hands over the keys to the church to the new one. Again, this rarely happens. Indeed, there’s usually a gap between the period of each tenure.

These two pieces of information – and others provided at the same time – have created the need for quite a bit of replotting and led to some really quite rewarding character enrichment.

Of course, I could ignore them. Just because something seldom happens doesn’t mean that it never happens, or couldn’t happen. However, that would mean that my work would be more predictable – because often our assumptions are similar.

I’m not exactly writing within a genre where everything has to match real life. But for the part of the work grounded in reality, it pays to keep it as close to that reality as possible.

And I have to confess that I enjoy both the research and the ways in which it affects my stories. I like meeting new people, exchanging ideas, building new characters and developing unforeseen story twists.

Without this, your entire book is something that you could guess at – and your readers can guess at too. With it, your characters and plot take on a new, more grounded and interesting life. Plus, the more believable the everyday stuff is, the more believable the supernatural stuff becomes too.

The other side of the pond

I recently had an interesting exchange with American writer Belinda Frisch about catering for readers outside of your own country.

I’d just finished reading her book and she’d done the same with mine; she asked whether any of the words or references used caused a problem for the UK English reader. Of course, the first thing I did was to throw the same question back at her and we batted things around for a while.

My response was that while writing I was, of course, aware that my book would circulate outside the UK. I wasn’t really thinking of non-English countries but I certainly did think a fair bit about the USA. Well, it’s a sizable market.

I would say that I thought about it but didn’t fret about it.

There are some clear and obvious differences in some of the words used in the UK and the USA. Some examples (some of which occur in The Well) would include:

Torch Flashlight
Pavement Sidewalk
Mobile Cell phone
Boot Trunk
Petrol Gas

You get the picture. When Belinda and I discussed this, we reached the conclusion that for the UK and USA, we’re each exposed to each other’s cultures enough to at least understand the reference, even if it requires a little thinking about.

There’s another factor too. The Well is set in small-town Lancashire. To be direct and authentic, it needs to use the vocabulary of that location, regardless of the readership. Using an American expression would grate on both sides of the pond. So, yes, when I used the word ‘torch’ I did wonder if Americans would readily understand it, but creating a USA-centric substitute would have raised eyebrows.

Of course, there are definitely words or phrases to avoid. An example might be ‘fanny’ which is quite an acceptable thing to sit on in the USA but isn’t in the UK. Or phrases such as ‘blowing someone off’ which in the USA innocently means to let someone down, or not turn up – in the UK… well, it’s a clear reference to oral sex.

There are bigger differences – an example might be how police forces are organised and named. The USA and UK police do the same job, but with a different structure and with different titles. In the UK, we don’t have sheriffs in law enforcement, for example – it’s a term that’s fallen by the wayside in policing and now refers to an officer of a court, such as a bailiff.

The same arguments apply: it needs to use the terminology from where the book is set, not where it will be read. A couple of examples spring to mind. The first is Shakespeare – Shakespeare’s English can be radically different from ours, yet even when we don’t grasp the specifics the meaning is seldom obscure. Another is Somme Mud, an excellent book about fighting in the First World War, written by an Australian. Here we have the issues of both dated English and colloquialisms – neither really presents a problem to the reader and removing them damages the authenticity of the words.

Then there are cultural references. I think when it came to these, I didn’t have to try too hard to make them transatlantic. Most consumer culture is global – so an iPod is the same thing wherever you are.

Some differences are interesting and worth researching. When choosing whether to use ‘knickers’ or ‘panties’ I wanted the least sexual term and the most local. Of course, the writer’s own knowledge helps and also that of friends. But Google has a useful tool, Google Trends, which can help you too – by showing you which words are most searched for.

In this case, we can see that in the UK, usage of both isn’t that far off equal, but in the USA, ‘panties’ is by far and away the most used term.

Google Trends chart showing geographical usage for 'panties' and 'knickers'

Google Trends chart: red: ‘panties’, blue: ‘knickers’

Yet the word is clearly understood in the USA, even if it appears that it’s not the most dominant used variation by a long margin. Local vocabulary and context (non-sexual reference) trump worldwide usage in this case.

Of course, when a UK reader picks up Stephen King (as an example) it’s littered with pop-culture references, which are everyday to Americans but obscure to us Brits. We don’t even eat Twinkies over here – but we do know what they are. When someone lights up a Lucky Strike we know what’s happening, though we may have to think twice to get what’s happening if the cigarette is a Merit.

I’ve had a lot of feedback from American readers but none (to date) had been around something that baffled them. Let’s hope that’s because they managed to understand (or at least guess) everything and not because they’re still scouring the Internet for translations.