Category Archives: Writing

Blood on the Shrine

Phil: With Candice on holiday, I get to do a book review with a steam engine on the cover and not suffer “the look” that says, “What are you doing Parker? I told you, NO TRAINS.”

To be fair, the book isn’t about trains, but the author, Chris O’Donoghue is a railway modeller among his other skills (also award-winning garden designer) and I met him at a model railway show.

Blood on the Shrine is the second Inspector Sonny Russell mystery. Set in the 1950s, the only connection with railways is that the Inspector lives in a converted railway carriage. This wasn’t so common years ago – you could buy a coach for a fiver and have it delivered to your plot of land. Many were then added to to make domestic dwellings and some still exist to this day.

Justifying the cover photo, the story involves a robbery from a train, but that’s incidental. Back then, trains were far more central to life than they are today, it could just as easily have been a van. We have the police charging around in cars, so nothing will be too unfamiliar to a modern audience but the world is very much just post-war and the atmosphere and detail works well.  There’s been a lot of research carried out before any writing started. Chris isn’t old enough to have known the world except as a small child so he’s not just working from memory.

If you’d like to see some of the reasearch – check out Chris’s Blog.

Not so much a whodunnit, more a will they get killed/captured. The book opens with a death, but oddly, not the most important one.  There’s a secondary storyline which follows the first book in the series, Blood on the Tide, and makes me want to read that one too.

I managed to read most of the story on a return trip to London with a couple of hours to finish the last few chapters. I was engrossed enough not to stare out of the window on the journey, something unusual for me. That’s quite a recommendation!

Blood on the Shrine at Amazon

 

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If you want to write, never mind a laptop, get an iPod…

Phil: As Candice mentioned last week, we have made good progress on Book 3.

Working in the library inspired us to crack on and get some words down. Sadly, as libraries are also popular with students, table space is at a premium. We ended up on a balcony – good view, but the stools weren’t comfortable for shorter people like my freind. Her feet didn’t touch the bar, whereas I fitted perfectly.

Anyway, after a delicious tapas lunch, we went our seperate ways. Arriving at the station, I spotted the next train was to Dorridge, one of our regular haunts. With inspiration still upon me, I decided another half hour or so in Costa would be good and headed that way.

Arghhh!

School holidays mean that the coffee shop, popular with the “yummy mummy” crowd, had turned into a crèche. OK, there were only 3 or 4 children in there, but they ran around unconstrained by their parents.

Luckily, I can’t work in silence. Years of sitting in noisy offices mean I can “tune out” noise and if I’m honest, I prefer it this way. Ignoring the spawns of satan though was harder, my iPod did the job though. The best efforts of Arabella and Constance were blocked out and another 1000 words appeared on the screen. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without music, that’s all.

 

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20,000 words

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Candice: So there is often a conversation when we get just past this point in book writing where Phil and I will go “How are we ever going to get to 80,000 words?”

This time around we are motoring along, with over 20,000 words in the bag and, with an overnight in a hotel for me this week and a long flight for Phil coming up, we will easily get to 30,000.

I’ve been busy putting together the random collection of ideas we have already written into one document so we can see how the flow is working and what gaps we can spot.  Though we have already had a few plotting sessions often, even with something written down, we can go off piste as an idea takes us, and then you have to work out if it will fit with everything else. A perfect example is a forgotten chapter, written months ago, that references a character than Phil has brought back, but with them having a different name and the chapter having an end that doesn’t fit with our timeline.

After an hour over tea in Solihull Library the other day we’d pinned down a few more things in my spreadsheet, both plot lines and dates and then spent a pleasant hour and a half drafting up 1500 words each, before the high stools that we had to sit on gave me so much back pain a lunch break had to be called.

At the moment I can see us creeping towards that magic number easily, we’ve two chunky plot threads that need to be fleshed out and then a big finale which always takes at least a third of the book.

So don’t knock the spreadsheet.  Though I have to say I think we’ve hit that point much earlier this book, it just shows how you fine tune your art every time you do a new one.  We’ll have this book out by Christmas…

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I’m looking up bad words in the library

Phil: Progress on our next book hasn’t been rapid recently. Both Candice and I are living very busy lives at the moment and things are getting in the way of writing. We’ve bashed some idea around via e-mail, but it’s not the same as meeting up in person, and it certainly doesn’t get the word count up.

Easter meant that the people in my office were away, leaving me in peace to catch up on some work, and with a day off that I decided would be given over to novel-writing.

Since I work from home, a trip to the local library would be a good break too. iPod on, laptop out, words written.

It’s odd working in the library. I keep looking around and remembering it’s where I learnt to swim.

You see, Leamington Spa is over-supplied with rather useless old buildings that eat council tax but can’t actually be used for anything of benefit. Worse, if you try to do anything with them, you face the wrath of those desperate to pickle the town in aspic in an imaginery verison of 1910.

Still, the conversion of swimming pool to library has worked well. Centrally located, it has enough space for books and a gallery full of reference works and tables for students or itnierant writers. These are popular. So popular that people go out to lunch or shopping leaving all their worldly goods in their space so no-one else grabs the seat. If you want a free laptop, just hang around until one of the students has wandered off…

Anyway, it worked. Almost 5000 words down. A great new plot strand developed and a few changes to our plans made once the characters started to do their thing on the page.

Thanks to the free WiFi, I was able to work out what the sound of someone being sick looks like in letters. I also checked out the plots of several plays that form part of our plot. OK, I did slope off for lunch (taking my stuff with me) and a refreshing half of rhubarb cider to lubricate the creative juices, but then it’s my day off…

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The Lubetkin Legacy – Two Stories. One book.

Phil: You don’t read many books where a block of flats is a central character, but in The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, the building plays a central role in the plot.

Story 1 – Lily Lukashenko dies and her dying words to son Bertie are “Don’t let them get the flat.” He has been living with her since the breakup of his marriage, unable on his actor’s salary, to afford anything else. To be fair, his acting work seems to be mostly “resting” and grumbling about the success of George Clooney. To be fair, George probably can’t quote Shakespeare as well as Berthold, but that’s as good as it gets.

In an effort to avoid eviction, he moves the lady from the next door hospital bed in to impersonate Lily with modestly comic effect, especially if you consider the names of Eastern European meals to be amusing.

Along the way, there is much rage about the problems faced by people relying on the state for an income. Officialdom comes calling many times, although one particular functionary eventually lifts Bertie out of his gloom.

Story 2 – Violet is a young Kenyan-born woman who gets a job in the city working in “wealth preservation”. This turns out to be tax avoidance and plundering African countries funds by overcharging the health services for basic supplies. She quickly grows a conscience and decides that the dream job really isn’t.

The two characters are neighbours and interact sporadically. There is a plot involving building plans that involve grubbing up a patch of cherry trees to be replaced with executive flats.

If I’m honest, Bertie ends up OK, but pretty much nothing else nice happens in the end. Violet is back in Kenya working for an NGO, but her efforts to expose dodgy dealings don’t go well. The trees get cut down. One character dies due to lack of money. If this is what The Times considers “A joy to read”, then I can only assume the reviewer likes seeing poor people get a kicking. Even those officials who went into public service are worn down and cynical. Everyone assumes that bad things are just going to happen and you might as well accept it.

One of the central plot strands, that Lily had an affair with the architect Lubetkin who designed the flats and left her a tenancy, is never tied up. Bertie finds a plan under the sofa but that’s it.

I’d planned for this review to be a bit more upbeat, but after a couple of days mulling the book over since finishing it, I’m just becoming more miserable about the story. I think that’s partly the point. Lewycka has written several other books including the well known A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and I suspect that these are also full of downtrodden people. You certainly feel for the characters (OK, I certainly do, maybe the Times doesn’t) and the lives they are trapped in.

The contrast between people working in “wealth preservation” and those at the bottom of the pile constantly being ripped off is pretty powerful. Very much a serious message wrapped in pretty paper.

 

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Death of a Bore

Phil: My pile of books to read has been going down and I found myself recently with a selection that while appealing, didn’t grab me. I felt the need for a proper novel with a story that I could fall into.

Dropping into my local library, I spotted Death of a Bore by M.C.Beaton on the shelves. As one of the dullest people you could wish to meet, I wondered if she was writing about me, and there is a picture of a steam train on the cover. Perfect. Out came the library card and the book came home with me.

First up, under the author’s name is “Author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin series”. I’ve heard of these but this book is from the Hamish Macbeth series of mysteries. I remember those, televised by the BBC back in the mid-1990s with Robert Carlyle in the lead role. It seems that this is so long ago, the more recent Raisin series, also televised a couple of years ago (but only on Sky so I haven’t seen it) is considered more of a selling point by the publisher.

Anyway, thanks to snow cancelling an event I was supposed to devote a weekend to, I decided to read the book in a day. The chance to do this rarely occurs but it’s lovely when you can devote the time to it. Proper relaxation.

Is the book any good?

Let me start by saying that Marion Chesney (M.C. Beaton) is a breathtakingly prolific author. There are 33 Macbeth books, 28 Raisin ones and 76 others according to Wikipedia. She is a writing machine!

So it’s no surprise that this isn’t the greatest work of fiction ever. I’ve read books with more depth, less clunky narrative and more polish. Characters are paper-thin much of the time and I didn’t really warm to Hamish much.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. That Hamish on the page bears no resemblance to Robert Carlye is a bit odd, but then Morse on the page isn’t much like John Thaw and people deal with it.

The style really reminds me of Agatha Christie. It’s a bit of a pot-boiler but who cares? I’ve tried to read books that were allegedly much “better” and gave up on them. This rattles along nicely and entertained me for a few hours. If you have a sunbed to lie on or just want to read for pleasure, its all good stuff.

Since the plot revolves around an authors murder and one of the things he does is inspire the local villagers to write, it’s odd that this has done the same for me. I think our books are every bit as well-written as Death of a Bore so there’s no reason that people shouldn’t enjoy them every bit as much as they obviously enjoy these.

Entertainment and inspiration. Not bad for a snowy Saturday afternoon.

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Lessons from Ken Dodd

Image from RuddyMuddy on Twitter

Phil: I can’t claim to have been one of the late Sir Ken Dodd’s showbiz friends, but I did meet him a couple of times while working at a local theatre.

Once, while minding the stage door at some time past midnight, he came off stage and pointed at my shoes.

“Crikey”, he said, “Those are fine feet, are you a policeman?”

I replied that I wasn’t to which he added, “Well, you know what they say about blokes with big feet…” and then swept off to his dressing room with a chuckle.

The amazing thing about Ken (never Mr Dodd) was that he’d arrive at the venue looking every bit of his 80 years. A small, quiet old man.

Yet the moment he got on stage, he came alive. The Ken in my anecdote was buzzing, almost as though there was electricity flying off him. This was after a 6-hour show too.

So, lesson 1 – If you are doing something you really love, you’ll never feel better or more alive.

In all the tributes, it’s been said by many people who you never knew when a Ken Dodd show would finish. The rumour was that every night management would have to haul him off the stage so the staff could go home.

This is a good story, but not strictly accurate.  Yes, the performances would go on a long while. No other act gave a longer show, but the staff knew when he would finish. Usually 1am on the first night, 12:30 on the second. Hidden from the audience in the wings was a clock which Ken kept an eye on.

Lesson 2 – If you want to be good at something, you need a professional attitude.

Ken didn’t just hang around telling jokes until he got bored. He honed his act through the study of comedy. Learning to play an audience, he only kept the jokes that got a laugh. Yes, material stayed in the act for many, many years – but only if the audience enjoyed it. In many ways, this is just like editing a novel. You take out anything that doesn’t add to the reader’s enjoyment. After a while, you are left with pure gold.

Legend is an over-used term, but it’s appropriate here. There will never be another Doddy, but if you aspire to his status, you better put the work in like he did.

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