A satisfactory ending… part 2

When I start writing I don’t always have the end of the story very clearly in my mind, and that is part of the joy for me, that the ending  can be a surprise to me too. However, I have to ensure that I finish with a satisfactory full stop because there is nothing worse than  a feeble or lazy conclusion to a novel.

I work really hard to make the last few pages of my book exciting, revealing something hidden, solving the puzzle, explaining the mystery. What I find really annoying in a book, is when the puzzle is solved by the introduction of something completely new, a long lost sister, an unrealistic affair,  an unexpected fortune that smooths out the problems and difficulties of the characters. To make the climax believable within the context of the fiction I have created,  clues and hints have to be seeded throughout the book so that the reader will think, of course! I should have realised when X said that to Y that there was a double meaning. Or silly me, he was in the market on the very day the vegetable stall was blown up. There has to be a few red herrings of course, but not the sort that end up quietly rotting away leaving a tell-tale aroma so the reader thinks, but what did happen to the Palomino horse? How did it end up in the tree, and more to the point, how did it get down again to be back in its stable by midnight?

Characters… at the end of the book the reader must not be too disappointed by what happens to a favourite character… if the character has been with the reader for a few hundred pages they don’t want him or her to fizzle out with an unrealistic marriage or a sudden departure to foreign climes. I am often devastated by the death of the main character and feel cheated… I know everyone must die, even fictitious everyones, but can’t that happen off stage once the book is closed and back on the shelf? What is almost worse is when the author falls in love with a character and becomes too familiar and over indulgent; sadly some great authors have fallen for some great characters and kept them alive beyond their sell-by date. I don’t mean that the character should die necessarily but there comes a time when he or she runs out of steam. Ian Rankin and Graham Hurley have both had long running characters starring in a series of books; both have released them in a realistic way before the reader got bored… or the author did!

I haven’t written a sequel to any of my books and  although one or two characters do reappear  they are not always named and maybe only I will know who the taxi driver in my recently completed first draft is. My completely fictitious settings however do recur; my novels are set along the coast of an unnamed area of Britain; the main city is Strand but much of the action takes place in the little seaside town of Easthope, in the grimmer industrialised town of Castair, and the little villages of Hope, Opal Harbour, Oak and Bethel. A major setting for my first novel, is of course, the eponymous FARHOLM. Any real places with the same names are not the ones in my work!

A satisfactory ending, part 1

There is nothing more frustrating as a reader than to be reading a book, engaging with the characters, be gripped by the narrative, inhabit the scenery and become intrigued by the plot… and then in the last chapter to be let down like a bicycle tyre with a slow puncture. A deflated reader is much worse than a deflated tyre, and almost as annoying. The thing is that deflated tyres can be repaired or replaced and you can go merrily on your way to a new destination… a deflated reader remains deflated. In fact they may even get off their metaphorical bicycle and throw it in a ditch and stomp away to the metaphorical bicycle shop to buy a whole new bike.

I have been disappointed to a greater or lesser extent a few times. Sometimes a great book peters out and I’ve left think fleaugh… was the author fed up with the story? Did he or she run out of ideas? Was a publisher chasing them to finish it by a certain deadline? Could the author just not be bothered? When it is a favourite author (I name no names) it is even worse.

One novel that sticks in my mind has won any number of awards and has been made into a much respected film. It has a most dramatic opening with images that have remained with me. The characters were so real I could almost see them standing before me, the setting so vividly described that I felt as if I had lived there. It was a historical novel set in an era I knew little about and the writer educated me about the events of the period subtly and indirectly. It was almost Dickensian in its scope and scale, and I suffered with the characters as they endured hardship and unbearable struggles just to survive. I was nearing the end, reading faster and faster yet trying not to skip anything because it was so well written, the language  a joy to read, then… and then… blow me! The author killed off the hero! I couldn’t believe it! I had walked miles with this man, shared his pain, admired his courage and determination and there he was, dead! I felt utterly cheated. I don’t necessarily want a happy ending, but I want a satisfactory one, and this was not satisfactory. I haven’t named this book; can anyone guess what it was?

A book I will name is “2666”,  the amazing and lengthy novel by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. I had seen it on shelves in bookshops for some time and was intrigued by the cover and title, and eventually bought it in Belfast Airport without knowing anything about it, except it was exceptionally thick, over nine hundred pages long. I began to read it and the characters leapt off the page and grabbed my by the elbow and wouldn’t let me go. I discovered that in fact the book I had contained five separate novels, hence its length. Characters appeared and disappeared, strange and brutal and surreal events took place ranging across the world from Europe to South America and from the present day back to between the wars. The five stories are: ‘The Part about the Critics’, ‘The Part About Amalfitano’, ‘The Part About Fate’, ‘The Part About the Crimes’, and ‘The Part About Archimboldi’. It is a magical book, an amazing book and it took me a very long time to read it because it was so detailed. At last I was nearing the end and the truth about Archimboldi was emerging and I was excited to find how the different stories linked together as I was sure they must. A few more pages, a few more pages… the end. Well, how mysterious… it doesn’t really end… but maybe that was the essence of the book that it was a fable, an enigma… I turned to look at the notes at the back and discovered that Bolaño had died before completing the book! Oh no! I cried… and was mightily disappointed, but gradually I came round to thinking about the book itself… it was so incredible, how could there ever have been a more satisfying end than the tragic end of the author himself.

The late Reginald Hill, author of the Pascoe and Dalziel books was a master of the magnificent ending. I didn’t once guess how his novels would resolve themselves. On one memorable occasion I was reading one of his finest Pascoe and Dalziel books, “On Beulah Heights.” I was coming to the end, the crimes hah been solved, the mystery untangled in a satisfying and seamless way and I came to the last page, I came to the last sentence… I nearly threw the book across the room, then burst out laughing in admiration at the cunning and genius of the man because in those last few words he revealed one final answer which should have been as blatantly obvious as the nose on Dalziel’s face! That’s the way to finish a book! Thank you Mr Hill!

Exciting times… part 2, down in Taunton with the BBC!

As a self-published author,  I have to generate my own publicity. At first I thought that might be easier said than done, but as a writer I have to be imaginative and creative so I have applied those skills in trying to promote FARHOLM.

Last week I had a great write up and a photo in our local newspaper, The Weston Mercury, today I travelled down to our beautiful county town of Taunton to meet Emma Britton of BBC Somerset. Emma wanted to interview me on her morning show and although slightly nervous I was excited and happy to accept her invitation. We drove through glorious spring sunshine to Taunton, a fine and favourite town in South Somerset.

BBC Somerset lives in an attractive old white cottage opposite Somerset County Hall and round the corner from Taunton Castle.

I was welcomed in and ushered into Emma’s studio where she greeted me warmly. I was fascinated how Emma delivered her show, and tried to concentrate on being interested rather than being nervous.

I tried to make our interview sound like a conversation, tried not to be tongue-tied and tried not to have too many ‘ers’, ‘ums’, ‘sort ofs’ and ‘you knows’. Emma was a great host and asked some pertinent and interesting questions and I hope I responded with pertinent and interesting answers! We discussed traditional and on-line publishing, vanity publishing, and my own writing and of course, FARHOLM. She also interviewed Phil Jones, deputy editor of ‘The Book Seller’ who gave a view on self-publishing or indie publishing as it is now called,  from the professional side of publishing. .

My interview is available on-line for seven days from the 28th March 2012 at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00q1hld

Salting Beans

I was looking through the names I had taken from the memorial on the Menin Gate, thousands upon thousands of them, names of the fallen I had downloaded while researching the Colgates and Props. I looked looking down our road, down Thornbury Drive and in 1918 every other house may had a dead or injured man, a son, a father, a brother, a husband. Surely it could never happen again, million upon million of un-named, unknown lost lives.

I have been working with the ancestors, pulling out the veneer of their stories and I am filled with thoughts of Alfred Prop and Horace Colgate. Having studied World War I and the poetry of Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Herbert Reed and others, the images of war spring readily to mind. Looking at family history , I also think of those left behind, fatherless or widowed and hence this poem. I imagine what it must have been like then when almost every house was touched by grief.

DOWN OUR STREET

Look down our street,

See the blinds pulled down, the windows dressed in black,

Like widows, pale faced, sad eyed.

Look down our street at this house and at that,

This brother’s gone, this father’s dead,

Her sons are broken,

And her son… who knows, missing…

… Nothing left but bones that catch the plough

And teeth within a sieve.

Look down our street, at every other door,

Black bow upon the pull…

Look down our street,

Our doors are bright with paint,

Glass gleaming in the sun,

Happy we.

We grew too many runner beans again last summer. As I am never very successful at freezing beans but not wanting to waste them,  I decided to try salting them to eat in the autumn and winter. I have a book about preserving and salting was discussed and sounded so easy.

However, the salt was thick and lumpy and did not properly cover the sliced beans even though I tried to poke it between the bright green slivers. The recipe warned against air pockets… beans would go slimy and repulsive if there were air pockets.

I packed the beans in the salt but there were little bubbles of air between the layers. I tried poked the salt down with a skewer but that didn’t really work so I shook them  out and tried again but by now the salt was damp and it was even more difficult to get it packed between beans.

It is spring now and we haven’t tried them yet… I have not got any great hopes… we’ll see.

I did have some success with freezing beans using an Iraqi recipe; I cooked the beans in a spicey tomato sauce and packed it into little containers and froze it. However, I didn’t choose my beans carefully enough and some were old, stringy and leathery. Note to self… only use young sprightly beans…

The salted beans… As I laid the beans inthe container, trying to lie them in neat rows, I sprinkled them with salt and unbidden an image rose in my mind of corpses laid out and sprinkled with snow, freezing before they could be buried. Was this a picture of some Nazi atrocity, or some more recent Balkan horror? Or maybe I was not thinking of snow but plague corpses laid in a pit muddled together and smothered in quick lime before earth was decently strewn across them.

Who knows where the image came from but it was uncomfortable  all the same. And then as I thought about it, unbidden came a memory of a story about a little dog which I read as a child. The dog was with French soldiers straggling back from Moscow in the vile winter after Napoleon’s abortive campaign. As a children’s story it cannot have really described the full horror of men dropping as they marched snow-shod, covered soon with a deathly white blanket, but it made a deep impression on me of the horror of war  and these images of of suffering and snowy deaths rose unbidden to my mind as I salted my beans.

SALTING BEANS

In summer I stripped the vines of all their beans

And in a new endeavour, I salted them.

I sliced them,  laid them on their bed of salt, slim green shrouded beans

And was disturbed by the image.

They lay like soldiers, buried in a fall of snow.

I had conjured Napoleon’s fleeing troops,

Dying on their wretched march

From Moscow, a wnter of death away

And to some dreadful rest.

It is not snowing now,

And yet the wind buffets from the east.

Kevin Montgomery & The RoadTrippers with Chris Cook

Devon – January 28th 2005

It goes without saying that it was another fab night with Kevin and the lads! You are just guaranteed to have a great time seeing them live! The venue was at Shebbear College in deepest darkest Devon. The organizers at the college very kindly supplied me with details and a route to get there and when I eventually arrived (yes, I got lost again) they were most welcoming and friendly.

Shebbear (and despite Kevin’s best efforts I still do not know how to pronounce it except it is not She-bear) is a tiny village and the college is an independent boarding school. The gig was in a large hall set out with tables and chairs and the band were up on a stage. I felt a little distanced from them compared to when I’ve seen them in Bristol but that didn’t really spoil my enjoyment.

Chris Cook played first in support, a great singer who I had heard first in Bristol. Then after a long wait (the band was at the pub apparently…. getting changed…. apparently!!) Kevin ambled onto the stage and kicked off with ‘Stumbled’ (or do I mean stumbled onto the stage and…..) After another number he was joined by Al, Mike, Paul and Robert and they set to giving us a great evening.

If they seemed a little tired at first it was explained that they had had been in the Netherlands the night before and had had a difficult journey back toEngland. They had had a great time over there, measured it seems by the fact that the drummer fell over and was lacking consciousness for a few minutes (‘I was pushed’ said Paul indignantly. ‘You were not,’ replied Robert, laughing) At one point, just in the middle of my favourite ‘I don’t even know your name,’ the electricity tripped out (technical term) but Sherry and Stewart, the amazing sound people, rushed to the rescue and soon we were grooving again.

Paul, Al and Robert left the stage and Kevin sang ‘Angel’ with Mike in support. The last time I saw them perform it in Bristol, Mike was unbelievably brilliant and Kevin was so taken with his playing that he sang the wrong verse! There was vibration from the snare drum which Kevin had to still, but when they played Mike was just as brilliant – and  Kevin remembered all the verses. It is a moving song and the audience were actually silent while he was singing. The audience did have a great time, but they were very chatty and talkative which became a little intrusive at times.

Mike McAdam had a solo spot and sang a number from his CD, a favourite of mine ‘Million Miles.’ Al Perkins gave a great performance doing the Robert Johnson number ‘Crossroads’. I wish I was knowledgeable enough to explain what instruments he used – to me it was just a great sound.

Unlike Hannah I can’t remember the numbers or the order they came in but it goes without saying that they were all amazing and it was a fab night. Here is the set list but only what I can remember!:

Cherokee City
Tennessee Girl
Melrose
Crossroads (brilliant Al Perkins)
Angel
Flower of My Heart
Heartbeat
Las Vegas (fantastic!)
Stumbled
Broken
I Don’t Even Know Your Name (half of it!)
Come On Baby
Cajun Song
Fear Nothing
I Wish I Were Blind
Another Long Story
Let’s All Go to California
Million Miles (Mike McAdam solo)
Your Kind of Love
I Can’t Drive You From my Mind
Full Blooded American Boy

Work in progress

I wrote my novel ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’ several years ago and as with my other books tried in a variety of ways to  get it published. I bought ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book,’ and other similar publications, and carefully selected publishers to submit to, and even more carefully following their criteria for publication and guidelines… all to no avail.

I tried to get an agent to support me, all they did was cost me money and waste my time… yes I know they should be rewarded according to what they achieve,  but many agents only take on new clients if they pay expenses up front. I entered competitions… I tried everything I could think of and was not in a position financially to self-publish… but then along came Kindle!

I am thrilled with the response I have had for ‘Farholm’, and have been energised to prepare my next novel.

‘Rosa’ is a longer novel with a more complex story and many more characters. I have edited and re-edited it but now I need to do it properly!

It is a couple of years since I last worked on ‘Rosa’ so at the moment I’m going through the novel picking up any errors that have eluded previous corrections, and being a little more objective now, doing some judicial weeding. I know I overwrite, I sometimes use fifty words when fifteen would do!

When I have finished this first edit I will go through it again, reading it aloud and its amazing how much needs changing when words are spoken and not just cosily inside my head! After that I will download it as a PDF document onto my Kindle and read it again; seeing it on the page rather than a manuscript or computer screen is extremely helpful. And then… and then… and then I will upload it into Kindle Direct Publishing… upload my cover… and press GO… and wait and see!

I will update you here on my progress, and maybe give a few hints and teasers about what else happens to Rosa apart from being stalked… and I can tell you now… its not pretty!

A discharged soldier

While researching family history in the 1891 census, I came across John William Coker, a discharged soldier looked after by an officer for the insane in Bethnal Green. He was 26 and  on the transcribed document I was looking at he was named, along with John Grimwood, an old man of 73 from Colchester in Essex. There were two nurses to the insane,  23 year old Harriet Jones from Blackdown, Worcestershire, and Susan Butler who was 69 from  Wexham In Buckinghamshire.  In the same household was young Phoebe Franklin, only 20, also from Essex, and she was the domestic housemaid.

My imagination began to create  a dramatic scenario, a very small private institution with only two patients… But I looked at the complete record, John was one of over 300 patients in Bethnal House, a lunatic asylum on Cambridge Road!!!

John was in the famous Bethnal House  , under the kindly supervision of Dr John Kennedy Will and his doctors, nurses and attendants.  Bethnal House was extremely old and  had been an asylum for over one hundred and sixty years when John Coker was a resident there. It was originally called Kirby’s Castle and was on the green from which Bethnal Green gets its name.

What had brought John to the lunatic asylum? Was it his service as a soldier? There is no way of telling. In 1881, a young  John Coker aged 18, was working as a dock labourer in London and  living in what must have been some sort of hostel or tenement, Great Eastern Chambers, Cable Street.  Was this the same John Coker who became a soldier, was discharged and ended up in a mad house? There were 111 men living in Great Eastern Chambers on the night of the census, most were Londoners but many came from Ireland, a few from Scotland three or four from America, and one from Mauritius. What on earth were the conditions like?  I dread to think, no doubt the place was vermin infested, literally lousy. Would they have slept in dormitories or would they have been “on the rope?”

“On the rope,” or a tuppenny hang, was accommodation where men would sleep standing  up leaning over a rope strung across a room. You could fit more people in and there was no need for bedding. Poverty indeed.  However, John and the other residents of Great Eastern Chambers were working, so poor they may be, but probably they could afford a bed.

What happened to John after the 1891 census?  There is John Coker who appears on a later census but it may never be known whether he is the same poor young soldier who was detained in bedlam.