On Writing


The whole How-Dare-You row kicked off again after Anthony Horowitz revealed he’d been advised against writing a black character in his Alex Rider series.

The BBC story is here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39988992

This topic both interests me as a reader and a writer. (I’ll spare you the inevitable para where I impress you with all the varied and well-researched perspectives I include in my own books.)

Leaving aside the precise definition of exactly what a ‘black character’ is, why shouldn’t Horowitz dare to inhabit a character other than himself? The Alex Rider series features a junior version of James Bond, aged 14-15.

Taking it to the extreme, all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London. – Anthony Horowitz

The subject of who has the right to write is on my mind.

I read a Bailey’s Prize shortlister which tells the tale of a privileged white woman and a mixed race man to whom slavery is not just history, but family.

I read a film script written by a man which focuses on female sexuality, sisterhood and what women really think of a penis.

I’m reading a book from the POV of a character who is mentally ill. No, not your average ‘unreliable’ narrator, but someone with an acknowledged, controllable illness.

They’re all fascinating, informative and emotionally engaging. I don’t need the author’s CV or photograph to tell me if their qualifications are sufficient. If they fall into cliché, patronise, mock or don’t do the basic courtesy of attempting to empathise with a character’s external moulding and internal reactions, they have no right.

Last week, Words with JAM published an interview with Jason Donald. How did he approach writing his character of Dalila, a young Kenyan refugee woman, I asked.

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

For her Diversity series in the same magazine, Catriona Troth interviewed Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ 

First of all, caring about Native people is not a condition for getting it right. If you don’t know someone personally, what you hold in your head and heart is more of an abstract than a reality. In the 1990s, illustrator James Ransom was asked why he had not illustrated any books about Native people. His reply was, “because I have not held their babies.” That’s a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of trust you have to have in place before you can do justice to someone’s stories. Once you move from the abstract into the real, you pause to consider what you are going to write or teach.

And Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don’t see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That’s more of a question of the writer’s ability to do it well enough so it’s believable, than anything else.

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it – and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that’s more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I’m not sure how we qualify the authenticity – if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

Finally, Christos Tsiolkas, who sums it up perfectly.

http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2012/05/christos-tsiolkas-has-breakfast-with-jj.html

I agree.

We all have the right to write outside our own experience. So long as we understand what that means. We should work harder at getting into other skins, minds, worlds, never forgetting it’s a privilege.

Finished!

The final book in my Beatrice Stubbs crime series is out 3 June. So what next?

A few ideas are bubbling.

Here’s a chicklit spoof I wrote for the Bookmuse Readers’ Journal.

What do you think? Stick to the crime job or indulge my inner romantic?

 

Making Up Stories, by Angelica Poppet

It could only happen to Honey!

She’s standing in the rain in only her chemise, her Uggs are soaked and the keys are still upstairs in her Mulberry Bayswater. She only ran out to stop JayCee escaping into the cute little park at the end of her divine Chelsea mews terrace. But the blue-point Siamese has a mind of his own. He slipped between Honey’s shapely, tanned and smooth ankles, just before the door slammed shut. Just wait till she tells the girls about this tonight at the Balenciaga apero!

A taxi pulls up and a man gets out. Honey has no time to notice the Savile Row suit, the hand-tooled Italian leather loafers and rose-gold Rolex Oyster, because she’s hypnotised by his absinthe-green eyes.

“You’re wet,” he says, his voice the rich roasted brown of Sicilian espresso.

“I know,” she breathes, her voice the rippling tinkle of Nepalese windchimes.

Image by Chris Fort

*****

Allegra, Sophia and Loveday screech when they hear about the tall, dark, handsome, minted neighbour. By half-past Bellini, they’re talking weddings.

“And his name?” demands Allegra.

Sophia tuts. “If it’s neither one or three syllables, darling, I simply forbid further contact.”

Honey does the Lady Di (dipped chin, coy smile, lowered lashes).

Allegra gasps. “OhEmGee, it’s both!”

“His name’s Benedict Story. But I can call him Ben.”

Screams, air kisses, more Bellinis.

Loveday cuts to the cuticle. “So no visible weirds?”

Honey hesitates. “He is a bit… odd. He wants to know my ‘über-narrative’ and says stuff like ‘Content is king’. Is that normal?”

Sophia scowls. “Probably works in publishing. Does he have a hairy back?”

*****

Shanice finds her, eventually, with no tears left to cry. When Honey spills the reason she collapsed on the Conran chaise, unable to move since her morning macchiato, Shanice shrugs and gets on with the dusting. Honey gathers all her sobbed-out strength to confront her. Shanice says Ben has a point. Not only does Benedict see Honey as shallow and lacking a developmental arc, but her cleaning lady agrees! Honey can’t bear it. She has no alternative. She must go to Bali.

Image by Chris Fort

 *****

A monk in saffron robes (totes perfect for the downstairs bathroom) tells Honey she needs a spiritual leader. She tells him she already has one and confesses why she named her cat JayCee. Turns out he’s never heard of Jimmy Choo.

Meditation sucks. At least while sitting still for a facial peel, Honey knows she’ll look radiant. Inner contemplation is about as interesting as Radio Four. Sophia, Allegra and Loveday are in New York but ‘admire Honey so much for seeking herself’. Easy to say when sipping Cosmopolitans on Fifth Avenue.

 *****

Heathrow Airport, even after a First Class full reclining bed and antioxidant breakfast, is absolutely as hellish as Honey remembers. But before she can hail a taxi, a burly, brawny and Tom-Ford-scented pair of arms spins her off her feet.

“Benedict Story! I… um… what… er… ohm…”

“Honey. I missed you. So did JayCee. I may look like a catalogue model with passionate ethics and expressive brows, but I’m just a boy in love with the girl next door. Could we combine our expertise and contacts? What say we set up a bespoke personal service providing a beginning, middle and end for the terminally vacuous?”

“Why Benedict, I adore the idea. Whatever shall we call it?”

He blushes attractively. “If you will consent to become my wife, we could call it… Making Up Stories.”

 

Images courtesy of Chris Fort via Creative Commons

If you want to read the crime spoof, step this way…

Get up. Walk dogs and rework key climatic scene in head.

Feed dogs, make breakfast, clean kitchen and sit down to write. Go back to kitchen to check champagne is in fridge because I am going to finish this book, this series, this final edit today. Oh yes I am.

Pug 1

Open laptop, read what I wrote yesterday. Edit everything I wrote yesterday. Let Pug 1 into the garden. Sit down and write two words. Let Pug 1 in again.

Sit down and start writing. Fifteen words later, Pug 2 wants to go out. Go to fridge for bottle of water. None left so fill empty water bottles and rearrange fridge to accommodate. Let Pug 2 in.

Sit down and concentrate. Rattle out 50 words and ponder the emotional impact of ‘clench’ versus ‘clutch’ while watching a blackbird yank a worm out of the lawn.

Pug 2 has sneezing fit and I recall Sunday is Dog Maintenance Day. Fetch designated dog facecloth from the cellar and notice washing machine has finished its cycle. Hang up washing and decide on ‘clench’. Clean both pugs’ nose folds and take French Bulldog into the garden to trim her nails.

Wash hands and sit at computer. Write 140 words and flick back to insert relevant flag in earlier chapter. Start editing earlier chapter. One word reminds me of that email from that bloke about that thing and I ‘quickly’ check the inbox.

Twenty minutes later, husband suggests coffee break. Agree. Hell, I’ve earned it.

Sit down and concentrate. Dogs napping in the sun, husband busy in the studio and I can write. 220 words later, I can bear it no more. This bra is digging into me and I cannot possibly create if uncomfortable. Upstairs to change underwear and notice bed linen could do with a wash. Change bed linen and spend fifteen minutes looking for matching pillowcases.

French Bulldog

Back at desk. Message from fellow student with question about German homework. German homework? I’ll do it later. Keine Ahnung, I reply. 350 words and the chapter is taking shape. Just need to work out the logistics of the gun and the distance and … French Bulldog scratches at the French window. She wants to sit in spring sunshine. For precisely seven minutes.

Hit 1000 words and check cupboards for refried beans as I fancy fajitas. Spend half an hour cooking, another hour eating and chatting about Paris, Texas, then twenty minutes clearing up.

Pug 2

After lunch and dog walk, I launch myself at the keyboard like a dervish.

Delete everything I wrote this morning and rework. While attempting to force characters into Scenario A, they slip and slide and evade me, setting up Scenario B.

It works. Excited, I tap away to a dramatic climax and then…

Pug 1 needs a pee. Shortly followed by Pug 2.

My concentration wanders. Time for a quick check-up on Social Media?

No!

I am a writer and I must write. 1,500 words later and my edit is complete. Just one last once-over and I can officially declare this book done.

Herr Husband wanders in.

“The only thing on a sunny afternoon is a gin and tonic. What do you say?”

French Bulldog farts.

The Distracters

This week, The Guardian newspaper published this: Stop it, Sherlock! Five TV Tropes that need to die.

I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s one I wrote earlier.

(Tune in next time for chick-lit.)

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Only Dead Fish Have Open Mouths by Jed Blood

It’s Friday night in Greensville, Colorado. Apple-cheeked Melanie Mills is pretty tired after school and a volunteer shift at Kitty Corner, the homeless cat charity. But tonight is special. She has a secret. She tells her folks she’s studying with the girls and heads out for her romantic blind date.

I’m neither romantic nor blind, but I’m waiting for you, Melanie. Inside my head is a lonely place. Inside my pocket is a garlic crusher. Tonight is for Daddy.

Lauren Laphroaig (don’t try to pronounce it, honey, you’ll choke) is woken at 3am by the phone. On the other end is Detective O’Malley, wearing a shower cap on each shoe, shouting at civilians to stand back and chain-smoking cheroots. The mutilated body of an apple-cheeked teenage girl just washed up in the creek. Lauren sighs, swears and drags on a leather jacket. En route to the river, she listens to Miles Davis, snacks on a chili dog and regrets her inability to commit to relationships.

Chief Inspector Elmet Bird is at the scene when she arrives; besuited, livid and in urgent need of soundbites for the city council. Lauren rolls her eyes (because she’s feisty) and mimes ‘Bird Brain’ to O’Malley. Bird spots their sniggering and assigns one of his own to assist in the investigation. Travis C. Weed is a law-enforcement-consultant with an apricot tie and a handshake limper than wilted chard.

Pathologist Rita Ferrongut won’t hazard a wild guess as to cause of death, insisting on a full PM first. Lauren and Weed talk to Melanie’s parents (traumatic), her friends (dramatic) and the weird owner of the cat sanctuary (erratic). Weed takes everything in his stride and asks intelligent questions. Lauren notices his long eyelashes and warm smile but still hates his tie.

The morgue. Ferrongut is having lunch (sashimi, sushi and edamame beans) over Melanie’s eviscerated corpse. She offers everyone chopsticks, while demonstrating how the victim’s injuries were caused by kitchen implements, including an oyster shucker. Weed rushes out to puke. Ferrongut belches. Lauren sighs, swears and goes home for a hot shower.

Time to wash off all that death, grief and wasabi. Wraps herself in bathrobe, fills whisky glass, puts on Chet Baker, has bitter phone call with ex-husband. “Married to the job? Maybe. But I’d rather be married to something I care about.” She sighs, swears and sleeps on the sofa.

Detective O’Malley uncovers police records for Barry King, owner of Kitty Corner. The man is dangerous. So Lauren decides to investigate, at night, alone, with no phone. Oh, and it’s raining.

Stumbling blindly through the midnight-black catty-combs beneath the feline refuge, Lauren is whacked on the back of the head. When she comes around, she’s in a cage, gagged and tied with fish scales smeared on her face. Barry (call me Bar) King, with fetid tuna breath, unveils his master plan – the only restaurant in the world to serve human flesh.

Weed, worried, turns up at Lauren’s house. He finds her mobile and listens to the last message. Kitty Corner? That weird guy who smelt of Whiskas? Of course! He tracks them down and calls for back up. But waiting is not an option when Bar King  selects the Hiromoto Hacker from his knife block. Today’s Dish of the Day, with truffle oil and rocket, will be Carpaccio of Inner Thigh.

Weed mans up and bursts in, wrests the cleaver from the madman’s grasp and stabs King with a chopstick. With his last gurgling breaths, King explains he was abused as a child and only allowed to eat tofu.

Beside the corpse, Weed unties Lauren and wipes the scales from her cheek. Relieved, she holds him tight. Confused, he confesses his love.

Lauren sighs, swears and with one regretful lingering kiss, moves on to the sequel.

My fabulous colleagues at Triskele make me sound rather nice.

Thanks, gang!

Triskele_Group_018

This is the third in our series – what each brings to Triskele Books.

http://triskelebooks.blogspot.ch/2017/01/triskele-author-feature-jj-marsh.html

Guest piece for Words with JAM magazine by yours truly, on magic book descriptions that work.
http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2017/01/how-to-write-killer-blurb.html

Ten steps.

Five of which happen before you even begin to write.

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Start with bare branches…

This week, I’ve been obsessing over characters’ names and why it’s so important to get them right. Just like plot, setting, research and characters, each requires a depth of understanding from the author which never makes it to the page.

What makes a name work? Here are ten things I’ve learned.

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Actors often quote a snippet of advice. Memorable names follow a syllable pattern. Three in the first name, one in the second. Jeremy Irons. Emily Blunt. Harrison Ford. Virginia Woolf. Cormoran Strike. Rosamund Pike. Atticus Finch. Orlando Bloom. Vivien Leigh. Beatrice Stubbs.

Names carry all kinds of coded messages and subconscious associations which can make a name become an essential part of the character. They must feel right, for the writer and the reader. Colours, animals, professions all trigger feelings of trust, affection or suspicion we may not even realise. Sirius Black. Scarlett O’Hara. Cat Baloo. Mike Butcher. Dickens was a master of character encapsulation within a name.

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Class, age and type can be encapsulated in the right nomenclature. Florence Flannel, aged retainer in a Cornish murder mystery, conjures the gnarly-knuckled old maid with no need to resort to comic West Country accents. Whereas Elizabeth Abernethy, lady of the house, carries a whiff of crinoline, corsetry and conspiracy.

Similarly, choose names to fit era and genre. Fantasy identities require as much creativity as historical fiction requires research. Slatibartfast meets Hrothgar. Chick lit heroes tend to be one-syllabled: Dan, Tom, Sam, Rhett, Mark and Will whereas heroines generally need two: Bridget, Sophie, Katy, Lucy, Vianne or Sally will do nicely.

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Two characters or more who begin with the same initial make the reader’s life harder. Marianne asked Madeleine why Mary Jane was at Michelle’s funeral because Michael had promised Martin he’d keep her away. *flicks back to dramatis personae*

Technicalities matter. When you have a character whose name ends in S, what happens with the possessive? James’s gun, Nicholas’ trousers, the urinal of Degas. If a first name ends in a vowel and the surname with a consonant, how does it sound? Mara Bellena, Mar Abelena, Marabelle Ena?

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Sounds matter. Read the names aloud. If the name is tricky, but you need it to be so, offer the reader an insight as to how it sounds. When my detective encounters an Angolan DNA expert called Conceição, she notes the pronunciation with a mental bridge – ‘cats say miaow’.

Characters rarely need to remind themselves of their own relationships. Hence using terms such as ‘sis’, ‘boss’, ‘cuz’ are an irritating authorial effort to remind the reader what s/he already knows.

Cultural resonance must be accommodated. I got on marvellously with my local doctor until we crossed the first name bridge. ‘You can call me Adolf’.

Collect names. Curious name crop up everywhere: signposts, streets, shops, election posters, newspaper stories and even in junk mail. Watch and write down those that trigger your own imagination. You may not use them for years, but when you do, they’ll have the same effect on the reader.

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