But I asked established crime writer, Margot Kinberg, to talk to us about her methods. Here's what she said.
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
But I asked established crime writer, Margot Kinberg, to talk to us about her methods. Here's what she said.
Monday, 16 September 2013
Creating the voice of your character – Using the First Person
Using a first person narrator can create an immediate impact on the reader by establishing a clear and identifiable voice and creating empathy and/or interest. For example, Rose Tremain in very few words, wittily conveys the essence of the character of Kirsten Munk, Consort of 17th century King Christian IV of Denmark, via her private papers.
Well, for my thirtieth birthday, I have been given a new Looking-glass which I thought I would adore. I thought I would dote upon this new Glass of mine. But there is an error in it, an undoubted fault in its silvering, so that the wicked object makes me look fat. I have sent for a hammer
Music and Silence by Rose Tremain
The limitations of first person narrative are well documented, the principal ones being problems of plotting, requiring imaginative ways of providing information which the narrator does not directly experience but needs to know. However, there are many examples of highly successful first person narrators in the works of accomplished writers of historical fiction.
A first person narrator can vividly convey his/her personality, social status and attitudes. Even in the narrative sections, such as the character’s reflections, as well as in direct speech and dialogue, the writer can include a range of linguistic features such as the cadence of the speech, dialect and accent. Jane Harris in The Observations, set in 19th century Scotland, creates an immediately striking voice for Bessy, a young fugitive prostitute. Her early encounters quickly establish her as a gutsy, worldly, hardened but sympathetic character.
I have to admit there was one added factor in my desire to leave the Great Road and that was the pair of polis that was coming towards us on horseback. Big buckers by the look of them. I had spotted them in the distance five minutes back, their top hats and big buttons, and ever since I had been looking for a way off the road, one that didn’t involve me running across a field and getting mucked up to the oxters.
So I stopped walking and turned to the Jocky. ‘This is where I go off,’ I says, pointing as the sign to the castle.
‘I fwill be coming with you,’ he says. ‘Hand you can be making me dinner. Hand hafterwards fwhee can be making a baby.’
‘What a good idea,’ says I and when he stepped forward as if to kiss me I grabbed his danglers and give them a twist. ‘Make you own babies,’ I says. ‘Now away and flip yourself.’
Off I went up the lane and when he followed me I gave him a shove and a few more flips offs and stamped on his bare foot and that was the last I seen of him, for a while, anyway.
The style successfully combines standard English narrative with some dialect expressions oxters and slang mucked up; danglers; flip as well as the non-standard spelling polis to indicate Bessy’s pronunciation. In addition, the phonetic spelling of the Highland boy’s accent represents Bessy’s contempt for him. Non-standard grammar is used in give them a twist and that was the last I seen of him and the conversational he says and I says which creates a sense of her speech style and social class. Her courage and skills of self-preservation are clear in her response to the potential threats to her safety and freedom as a vagrant.
First person narratives also seem to allow smoother transitions into back story, as the main character, who is often telling the story of his/her life at a later date, can include past events. In Witch Light, Susan Fletcher captures the personality of Corrag, a wild young girl awaiting trial for witchcraft in 17th century Scotland, as in her cell she reflects on her life.
I say it – look. Witch.....And my breath clouds so the word is white, rolls out.
I have tried to not mind it. I’ve tried so hard.
I have tried to say it does not hurt, and smile. And I can reason that witch has been a gift, in its way – for look at my life.... Look at the beauty that witch has brought me to. Such pink-sky dawns, and waterfalls, and long, grey beaches with a thundering sea, and look what people I met – what people! I’ve met some sovereign lives. I’ve met wise, giving, spirited lives which I would not have done, without witch. What love it showed me, too. No witch, and I would not have met the man who made me think him, him, him - all the time. Him, who tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. Him who said you....
The narrative intersperses the present, her breath as she speaks, clouding in the cold air of her prison cell, then moves to her inner reflections and the life of a woman shunned as a witch. Corrag’s recollections of her wild and isolated life reveal her suffering but also her resilience and the pleasures she has derived. The prose has poetic qualities: repetition of words and phrase patterns, images of colour, simple language, which create a sense of otherwordliness about her character.
Another advantage of using the first person, is the way that it enables the writer and then the reader to enter the inner world of the character, to share in his/her emotional life, to see and judge other people and events from his/her perspective. It can also convey a ‘confessional’ relationship with the reader and some writers do this explicitly when the narrator addresses the reader directly in the second person ‘you’. In some cases the use of a naive or unreliable first person narrator can create humour or tragic dramatic irony.
I had always shied away from using the first person, but decided to try it in my third novel The Conjuror’s Truth, as a way of responding to feedback on my heroines in earlier novels, which suggested that they were not characterised strongly enough, nor were they engaging the readers’ interest sufficiently. I also, perhaps unwisely, experimented with the present tense, to increase the tension and immediacy of my heroine’s situation.
The Conjuror’s Truth
Chapter 1 Welstead, Essex, August 1698
We are three weeks wed and still he has not touched me. Mary has told me what a woman must endure to do her duty to God and to her husband, but though there is a good bedchamber upstairs and I have taken care about my person, he does not come to me. Instead he sleeps upon a couch in his study next to the parlour. I hear him sometimes at night, pacing below, his feet shuffling upon the flagstones. A light flickers at the foot of the stairs where he pauses awhile and then there is darkness again.
I do not know how I should speak to him, we being so little in each other’s company and so poorly acquainted. How can I discover my husband’s humours, his likes and dislikes or share in his thoughts and opinions? My husband? How can I even claim him as such? He is not mine in any way, save by a bond of law, which has not tied our hearts or minds nor our bodies together. God has ordained that the holy union of marriage is for the procreation of children and my husband is a godly man who does not shirk his duties. Why therefore does he deny this one? I have no one to turn to, to confide in or from whom I might seek counsel. Mary is now so far away and my husband and I are strangers in this new town. I can do nothing but bear this shameful puzzlement with patience and try what is in my power to please him.
I was faced with the challenge of sustaining interest in the character and her traumas and adventures, which I think I managed through a fairly action-packed plot. The plot is a little extreme and one reader’s feedback indicated less satisfaction with the romantic hero, though as always the responses of readers were pretty variable and sometimes contradictory.
Now, as I prepare to start my next novel, I am in a quandary and although I have plenty of ideas about the setting and some events, I have not settled on a strong or interesting enough main character and wonder whether to try first or third person. I suppose that there is no way of knowing other than by launching forth and then re-writing if the chosen approach does not work!
Writing does not become easier. The more I do it, the more I am aware of potential pitfalls and the gulf between what I aspire to achieve and the reality of what I produce!
Tuesday, 10 September 2013
Of course there is also the thrill of finding out you’ve been shortlisted for a competition. For me this meant being able to justify the many un-paid hours I put into my writing, often stolen from family- time, and confirmation that I should start taking my writing more seriously.
Tuesday, 3 September 2013
If you're a writer - or, for that matter, a reader - you'll have noticed that different genres have noticeably different conventions with regard to such things as writing styles, degree of pace, suspension and so on. Even use of language can differ, for instance you wouldn't expect Ian Rankin or Michael Connolly to write in the same way as Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel. Mind you, people like PD James and John le Carre do manage to write literary works while at the same time sitting in the crime and/or spy sections of bookshops and libraries, but they're both a bit special.
So I thought I'd ask a writer who regularly swaps between crime novels and thrillers. Do they use the same conventions? See what the experienced writer, Adrian Magson, has to say about it.
WRITING CRIME NOVELS OR THRILLERS - what's the difference?
As far as headings go, probably not much. They should both thrill, but to differing degrees.
Readers like to know what they’re getting. As do agents and publishers. Call a book a crime or mystery and they know exactly where to place it, mentally and physically. Romance, sci-fi, fantasy… all those are obvious. Labels help them target books to the appropriate audience (although oddly enough, in one chain bookstore, many thrillers are found in General Fiction).
But as a writer, I have to approach them with a plan in mind. And for me that plan involves pace.
Take my Inspector Lucas Rocco (crime series). Set in rural Picardie, France, in the 1960s. It’s been called a police procedural, but I have to admit it’s light on the procedure. And that’s deliberate. The French police structure is more complex than ours, but going too deep into that would have taken up too much of the story. And Lucas Rocco is not really a rules and regulations animal; as a former gang-buster from Paris, he’ll abide by them where he has to, but solving crimes is what he’s good at and lies at the heart of each story.
Rocco, often accompanied by Claude Lamotte, the local garde champetre (rural cop), or Desmoulins, a fellow detective, is not always chasing crims in dark corners. He’s more likely to be out looking for clues, or straying off-territory to hunt down contacts and sources of information (often in Paris, his former base), or mixing with unsavoury types trying to unpick the relationship between suspects or others, all the time trying to stay below the radar of the all-embracing Ministry of the Interior.
The Ministry is vast and controls all aspects of police life. To Rocco, the men in grey suits merely get in the way, especially when so many of his cases seem to involve an arm of the government. Then there’s his immediate boss, Commissaire Massin, with whom he has history both of them would like to forget. These twin aspects of Rocco’s professional life – and his problems adjusting to life in a small village, and the quirky locals - allow me to inject conflict alongside the troubles and dangers he faces each day, whether that’s from violent criminals, would-be presidential assassins or bombs left by former Resistance members.
Rural it might be in Picardie; quiet it isn’t.
The pace here lies in the unravelling of the story as he chases down the villains, and this invariably picks up and becomes more tangible as we get into the investigation.
And then there's my protagonist Harry Tate (spy thriller series). This has pace in its DNA. I know from the start of each book that I have to keep the story moving. This means more action, more threat – and a faster movement of characters and events.
As a former soldier and MI5 officer, who was nearly terminated by a rogue boss (‘Red Station’), Harry works as a contractor for the intelligence services and others. He’s ‘carded’ (licenced to carry a weapon), and his world is one of spies, traitors, rogue military types and foreign intelligence hit teams. He has a colleague, Rik Ferris, who provides the technical aspect of surveillance, digging out secrets and occasionally hacking into areas he shouldn’t.
Harry isn’t a super-agent type, but more a solid, effective counter-intelligence worker who gets things done. He’s ready to travel anywhere, and frequently does, so his field is international (which is also fun to research and write).
I was asked last year by the Harry Tate publishers to write another series character, and have just turned in ‘The Watchman’ (due out in February), which is still in the contemporary thriller world, but darker in tone. It was something I wanted to try, to see if I could deliver. (The publishers and my agent – and my wife, Ann, who is my beta reader – love it, so the signs so far are good). Portman, the main character, is a sort of unseen bodyguard for spies, and therefore has to be ruthless in his outlook to protect his charges. The setting is on the Somali/Kenyan border and involves terrorists and pirates.
I enjoy switching between the two genres types, and consciously wear a different mental hat for each one. Once that hat is on, I’m in the zone and ready to go.
The main thing is, I enjoy what I do, whatever the genre, and hope that comes out in the writing.
Adrian Magson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Inspector Lucas Rocco series published by Allison & Busby