Lend me your ears…

There’s a very interesting development coming up soon. One of my Sherlock Holmes stories for the MX Collections, “The Holloway Ghosts” was written not in my usual first-person Watson narrative style, but as an audio play.

Steve Emecz, the publisher behind MX, had been quietly asking for some time for me to make my works available as audiobooks, a field in which MX Publishing has quietly been making significant progress.

Accordingly, the Holloway Ghosts made their way over to MX, where they have been recorded and produced by another Steve (White), and Steve W and I worked out some of the production issues (including some of my stupid errors in the script) by email until we were both happy with it.

Audio is more than just the words

As we processed the script, I discovered that there is much more to making a successful audio drama than merely the right words. It helps to have a little atmosphere in there – a ticking clock and a crackling fire summon up the atmosphere of the rooms in 221B Baker Street. The clip-clop of horses’ hoofs brings us outside into a Victorian street, and a little reverberation added to the effects and dialogue places us with Holmes and Watson in a deserted empty room.

And then there’s the voice in which the accents are spoken. Steve, without going into a ludicrous falsetto, can portray the female characters in my story. However, I had envisaged one of my characters as being much more strident, and probably not a Londoner, than Steve made her. So we changed her to be a Midlander with an attitude, and I think we’re much happier with her now.

Steve surprised me with his Lestrade, who seemed to be from Norfolk. However, once I had got over the surprise, it worked, and made a great foil to the stolid Cockney PCs who play a role in the story.

And we also had fun with Otto Sussbinder – a German character who is not all that he appears.

And next…

This is one of the problems I encountered with regard to a voice play – transitions. I could have taken the easy way out, and had Watson do a voice-over.

We left Baker Street and made our way to Holloway by cab. During the journey, Holmes informed Lestrade of his conclusions regarding the recent theft from Westmereland House.

But I felt that was cheating. Accordingly, I wrote these scenes either as dialogue, or as a spoken cue by one of the characters:

Come, let us take a cab to Holloway, and we may usefully pass the time by my informing you, Lestrade, of the conclusions I have reached regarding the Westmereland rubies.

I also found, in scenes where more than one character is present, that I needed to throw in names in order to indicate who is being addressed:

Lestrade, if you would be good enough to call one of your constables, and Watson, follow me to the rear of the house.

All very technical, but necessary to the ultimate success of the production.

So… Keep a lookout for the Holloway Ghosts – appearing soon in a little over 30 minutes of glorious  audio. And at least two more of my longer stories are on the stocks, being adapted in the same way – no descriptions – simply dialogue. It’s an exciting venture.

I’ll be writing more later, when these hit the “shelves”.

 

I’ve been away from here for a while…

The reason is that some pesky person down in London went and called a General Election, and my writing skills, such as they are, together with a reasonable amount of my time, have been harnessed to a political cart.

It’s been quite an adventure – the first General Election in which I have known “my” candidate (and one of the other candidates) personally – and I’m seeing many of the aspects of an election from the inside.

It’s been educational standing on street corners, handing out leaflets, and engaging with people whose political views differ from mine. Very little in the way of actual arguments, and most of my conversations have ended with a handshake and a “take care” from both sides.

But… it has eaten into my writing time. I make no apologies. The future of the country in which I live and hold citizenship is more important to me than my scribblings. Normal service will be resumed soon after December 12.

 

 

If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

Continue reading “If Only They Didn’t Speak English (John Sopel) – REVIEW”

Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

Another day, another genre…

I’ve written books in a variety of genres, but one I’ve shied away from, for no good reason, is the horror/weird genre.

However, in the Lichfield Writers, I found that quite a few of my pieces actually were at least moving in the direction of that genre, and could be put together to make a small collection. I was encouraged in this by John Linwood Grant, who has much more experience in this field, and am going ahead with the project.

UnknownbackI’ve picked out ten stories, and the 96-page book will be on sale soon. I’ve produced it as the same pocket size (4″ x 6″ or 101mm x 152mm) as the Untime paperback. It’s cute and it’s rather friendly.

The cover is still a little provisional, but I’m pretty certain that Unknown Quantities will end up looking a little like this.

The price it will go for on Amazon is £5.99 (US $6.99). I should be able to do it for much less (including p&p). If you are interested in a signed copy, please let me know, and I’ll be able to order copies for resale.

How politically correct should you be?

When writing fiction, typically I try not to offend, but I also try not to go overboard on the politically correct side. If the situation calls for it, then I use the word or phrase that the character in question would use. Likewise, “my” characters take on their own personality as I write about them, and they surprise me sometimes with what they tell me about themselves. So if a character is a “minority” – that’s just the way they are, and it was almost certainly not a conscious decision on my part.

So, as far as offensive and non-PC language is concerned, in my Balance of Powers, I have an African-American protagonist (former USMC officer). At one point, he gets called out by a white bigot, who uses the N___ word (spelled out in full in the book) and calls him “boy”. You will be happy to know that she learns her lesson. He, by the way, isn’t shy about using obscentities when he feels the situation calls for it.  For example, in another scene:

He went out of the office, and as he was about to close the door, his frustration boiled over. “And f___ you too, you cold-hearted b_____! F___ you up the a__!” he shouted at her in his loudest Marine parade-ground tones, before slamming the door shut as hard as he could. The other workers in the open-plan office leading to Allenby’s private office appeared above their cubicle dividers, like gophers popping out of their holes, with what looked like smirks on their faces. He heard a few giggles. [all obscenities spelled out in full in the book]

In Beneath Gray Skies, I had a similar problem when referring to people of colour. US Senators and Congressmen from the southern states, right up to the middle of the 20th century, used the N____ word, even when speaking on the floor of Congress. How was the Congressional Record going to record this racism? It got round it by recording the word as “Nigra”, and that’s what I ended up doing. The word is used a lot by the Southerners in the story, the Brits use the term “colored chappie” or similar (this book was written using US spelling, hence the British using “color” rather than “colour”).

Moriarty grabs hat
Moriarty Magpie snatches his hat back from Watson Mouse.

The problems can be even more subtle. When Andy Boerger and I were developing the children’s series of Sherlock Ferret books, we had to come up with a villain. Someone who was smart, and pretty nasty. Our first thoughts were of ravens and crows, and then we started to pull back a bit. These birds are all black – by creating an all-black villain here, are we demonising black people? Possibly… But then Moriarty Magpie swum into our consciousness, and we had a black and white villain, who had an alliterative name, and magpies are, after all, renowned as thieves.

PiggybackSloth
Here’s Lestrade, who is a rhinoceros (though not a very big one) giving a piggy-back ride to Doctor Solomon Sloth,

Once more in Sherlock Ferret, we had a character called Doctor Solomon Sloth. All our characters wear hats, and with the name Solomon, we seriously considered giving the good doctor a hat of the type often worn by Hasidic Jews. However, Solomon is a sloth, and spends much of his time asleep.

“It’s been a very long and exhausting day. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I will leave you and take a nap before I turn in for the night.”

If we made him obviously Jewish, would we be giving the impression that we thought Jews were lazy? Quite possibly, we thought, and changed the hat to something a little less identifiable.

But it’s not just racial PC that an author must consider – there are sexual and gender-preferential matters to be considered. Again, in Beneath Gray Skies, I use the term “queer” to describe homosexuality, that term being period-authentic. However, Balance of Powers has one (female) protagonist who is gay, and my Untime series, although related by a man, features a female character who is stronger and more intelligent than any of the male characters. But these weren’t conscious decisions – these were just the way that the characters presented themselves to me.

And as far as “bad” language is concerned, some of my characters, like some people in real life, use it a lot, and others, like others in real life, don’t.

And in the end, this is what you as an author must do, I feel – be true to the characters that you create, whether or not you like what they are or what they represent to you.

The Secret of the League – Ernest Bramah – REVIEW

I’ve held off political writing on this blog for a while, but this post is an exception, as a result of the book that I read recently.

The Secret of the League – The Story of a Social War – is a 1907 novel about a Britain in the late 1910s (no world war takes place in this world). A Labour government has been elected, and the government and Cabinet, former union leaders and shop stewards, are out of their depth.

Bramah is best known for his stories of a blind detective, Max Carrados, which I have enjoyed reading, and his Orientalist Kai Lung stories, which I find pretentious and tedious. This book is more like the former than the latter, and though the style is slightly dated, it wears better than many others of the same vintage. The basic plot could be written today, however, with a few modifications to bring it up to date.

The socialist leaders are depicted mockingly, and Bramah makes them slavishly repeat all the clichés of the Left at that time (in dialect at times). They institute a welfare state which goes beyond anything that ever actually existed, and pay for it with ever-increasing taxes on the “bourgeoisie” and the upper classes (the House of Lords has, of course, been abolished). Interestingly enough, Bramah describes the Laffer curve, some seventy years before it became part of the economic vocabulary.

To counter the excesses of the socialists, a League of Unity is set up, fronted by a once-popular politician, which works behind the scenes to prepare for a spectacular act of civil disobedience (it’s all described in Wikipedia and elsewhere, but I won’t tell you here, because the book is well enough crafted to leave you in suspense).

Suffice it to say that it is a revolt by the middle- and upper classes to overthrow a fanatical (if superficially well-meaning) government which is driving the country to destruction. Violence does arise, but as a response to the violence of the supporters of the government side, rather than being instigated by the revolters. Eventually the government is brought to its knees, having shot itself in the foot, with its Achilles heel being the handouts that the electorate have come to expect. (how many below-the-waist metaphors can I cram into one sentence?)

Though it may appear that the tenor of the book is anti-socialist, it transpires at the end that Bramah’s sympathies lie with the anti-populists, as the League of Unity offers places in the new government and there is sympathy for the ultimate goals of the socialist government, but not for their methods.

I discovered some disturbing parallels between the book and our current political state in the UK (I am writing this in the middle of the prorogation crisis just triggered by Boris Johnson). I would recommend that you read this story – a free download as an ebook from Project Gutenberg – and then add your comments here.

Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW

Sorry about the silence recently. Some of it has been an enforced silence (minor surgery with subsequent complications) and some has been connected with things I am not allowed to talk about (no, I haven’t joined MI6 or MI6 or GCHQ, but there are secrets which must remain hidden for the nonce*).

Anyway, I recently bought a copy of Hell’s Empire, an anthology of weird/horror tales around a common theme.

Imagine Them – the demons of Hades, the Empire of the Damned, the Dukes and Earls of Hell, commanding legions of the damned to battle against the heartland of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Martini-Henrys and Maxims bark and chatter against fanged, clawed horrors that rip off heads and splay intestines in obscene eldritch patterns. Continue reading “Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW”

The sound of silence…

…or how to describe without description.

Aspiring writers are told to “show not tell” – in other words, to allow the reader to do a little work in setting the scene for themselves. Don’t say “he was angry”, say “his face grew red as he pounded the table with his fists”.

Thomas Love Peacock satirised the over-telling in the stage directions provided for a fictional (doubly fictional, since the “author”, Scythrop, has never written it) play in Nightmare Abbey.

The princess is discovered hemming a set of shirts for the parson of the parish: they are to be marked with a large R. Enter to her the Great Mogul. A pause, during which they look at each other expressively. The princess changes colour several times. The Mogul takes snuff in great agitation. Several grains are heard to fall on the stage. His heart is seen to beat through his upper benjamin.

If you’ve never read the book, I strongly recommend it – it’s a lot of fun if you’re into the early 19th century (if you’re not, then you’ll find it boring).

But there is one genre where showing rather than telling is a must, and that’s a radio play. It is possible to cheat, and basically write a straight story, with actors reading out the parts in quotation marks, but the purest form of radio drama (in my opinion) has no narration, and all is explained through the dialogue.

I set out to do just that with a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and using the BBC radio drama template in Scrivener, produced the first draft of a thirty-minute (or so) drama in one day, and though I say it myself, I am rather pleased with it.

It was a real challenge at times to provide the settings and the explanations with no narrative, other than that provided in the dialogue:

Screenshot 2019-06-27 09.33.18.png

Bear in mind, if you would, that this is a draft – but I think this illustrates how I tried to set the scene with a minimum of description. A very interesting technical exercise, and even if it doesn’t get bought and produced by the BBC, I feel it has been worthwhile.

Apologies (and a free gift)

I’ve been settling into a new role for the past month or so. On May 2, much to my surprise, I was elected as a City Councillor. It sounds very grand, but in fact the City of Lichfield is really a parish, and most decisions are made by the Lichfield District Council, and matters concerned with roads and education are largely decided by Staffordshire County Council.

However, being a City Councillor, although it is an unpaid position, does carry some responsibilities, and there is a learning curve attached to doing the job properly – and I certainly intend to do that. So far it’s been interesting and exciting, and even though the novelty may wear off, I will always consider this to be a serious and responsible position to hold, and I will do my best to represent the people of Garrick Road Ward.

There are minutes and agenda, the details of how meetings of planning committees, etc. and a few rather nice quaint historical ceremonial events such as the Lichfield Bower, the Sheriff’s Ride, a world champion Town Crier (Ken Knowles, pictured above), who also acts as sword-bearer on ceremonial occasions together with two mace-bearers, and so on. But… learning takes some time, and my writing, including my blog, has been affected.

By way of a little compensation, let me give you a short (untitled) story that I wrote for the Lichfield Writers:

Yes, I was frustrated and annoyed. We’d got on like a house on fire for the whole evening, and I was ready to go home with her, or take her home with me, when she looked at her watch and told me she had to be up early the next morning, so goodnight, thanks for the drinks and see you soon.

So I needed something to cheer me up. Didn’t feel like the chippy, and we’d had an Indian together before we’d settled into the pub for the evening. I knew I’d had enough to drink – too much, if the truth was told, so that wasn’t an option. And then it started raining, so I turned my up collar and kept walking.

It caught my eye from some distance away. A hand, sticking out of the skip outside the department store they were doing up. What looked like a woman’s hand and arm, bare to the elbow. Visions of lurid headlines spun through my mind as I approached. “Lichfield man’s macabre midnight find” was a good one, as was “Grisly garbage in city centre”.

I actually laughed out loud when I got close to the skip. The arm was a mannequin’s arm, plastic or plaster, or something. I pulled at it, and it came away, leaving me holding it like a trophy. “You look armless enough to me,” I said to the now dismembered body in the skip. “Nice of you to give me a hand.” (Don’t worry, I get a bit like this after a few drinks. It could be worse – I could turn into a raving violent monster)

So there I was, walking back home, hand in hand in hand with my new friend (or part of her). When I got in, I put the arm on the table, and noticed for the first time that there was a slim chain round the wrist, which looked like gold. Not only that, but there were three pieces of glass, two red and one white, in gold settings halfway along the chain. Pretty, but not my style. I decided to take it along to my friend Julie who runs the antique and curios shop to see if she’d give me anything for it.

I left it for a few days, and took it in to show her. To my surprise, she didn’t immediately dismiss it as junk.

“Where did you get this?” she asked, peering at the glass with a jeweller’s loupe screwed into her eye. She sounded suspicious.

“I just sort of picked it up somewhere,” I told her. Well, that wasn’t a lie.

“I’m not going to take it,” she said.

“Why? Not worth your while selling it?” I asked.

“Out of my league, dear. If I were you, I’d go down to Birmingham and go to one of those little shops in the Jewellery Quarter and see what they have to say.”

And that was the end of that conversation.

As always happens to me with this sort of thing, I left it alone for a month or two, but one day I was going into Birmingham, and I had a few hours between meetings, so I decided to use the time to do what Julie had suggested.

I had no idea which shop to go to when I got off the train at Jewellery Quarter, but picked a small dingy little place – something in the way Julie had talked had made me cautious about going into one of the bigger more glossy stores.

The man behind the counter asked the same question as Julie had done.

“Where did you find this?” His tone was more accusing than curious.

“I found it on the street,” I said.

“And you didn’t feel you needed to hand it in to the police?” If the tone of his voice was anything to go by, he didn’t believe me.

“A cheap bracelet and a few pieces of glass?”

“They’re not glass.” He handed the chain back to me. “Now bugger off, and be thankful I haven’t called the cops. I’m not touching this.”

I buggered off, as requested, the bracelet burning a hole in my pocket. The next shop I went to was a little more helpful.

“Hmmm… Two rather nice rubies and a very pretty diamond. Nice setting. Are you selling?”

“What’s it worth?”

“I’ll give you a couple of thou.”

Wow. Two thousand pounds for something I’d found in a skip? Which probably meant he could sell it for five. “I’ll think about it.”

“Two five, and I’m not asking any questions about where it came from.”

I had a sudden thought. “Tell you what. I’ll give you five hundred if you do what I ask.”

“Go on…”


 

All this happened fifteen years ago. The two rubies and the diamond now adorn my wife’s custom-made engagement ring. And yes, she was the one who left me in the pub that night I found the bracelet, telling me she had an early start the next day. She really did have an early start, and she called me that evening to apologise for running away. By the time I’d found out the truth about what I’d discovered in the skip, I’d decided, and she was on the point of deciding, that we were going to get married.

The ring clinched the deal.

“How on earth did you manage to afford this?” she asked me when I gave it to her.

“You really don’t want to know.”

But what I really want to know is what happened to the person who threw out the mannequin with that expensive bracelet still on its wrist. Let me know if you find out, will you? I won’t tell anyone else.

John Linwood Grant – Interview

The first interview on this blog, with John Linwood Grant, writer and editor of weird fiction, sharer of space with lurchers, and creator of several strange characters who live and move and have their being in and around the London of Sherlock Holmes (who also makes his appearance in several of his works). He has also reviewed a book of mine and interviewed me – and in the interest of balance it is only fair to let him present his side of the story.

Continue reading “John Linwood Grant – Interview”