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Five years on

imageFive years ago, during a holiday to the Isle of Arran in Scotland, a series of events changed the course of my professional life.

We have holidayed in Arran since I was a child. My Dad was born in the main village of Brodick and his family have lived on Arran since the 16th Century. He eventually moved to the south east of England for work, but ensured that we never forgot about our roots in the Western Isles.

I don’t know what was different about the summer of 2012. The buzz of the London Olympic Games hadn’t really reached the remote farmhouse on the western coast of the island where I was staying with my husband, children and parents that August. The weather was good, I recall, which may have had a part to play, as it’s by no means a given in this part of the world.

But it was evident not long after we disembarked from the ferry, that this trip would be special. I began to feel the irrepressible  urge to run through stories and dialogue in my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my notebooks with me, as I would have these days. So the words went unrecorded.

Then, on a fresh, sunny day, my Dad and I set off on one of our favourite walks; up the hill from the tiny settlement of Thunderguy, to the beautiful, crystal clear waters of Coire Fhionn Lochan. A loch nestled idyllically amongst the peaks with its own white gravel beach. A magical place, where my sister and I used to swim as children and a popular walk on the island.

This particular ascent was an unusual one. About halfway to the Lochan, we spotted a lady’s handbag amongst the rocks and scree. We assumed that a fellow walker must have put it down when resting and forgotten to pick it up again. I placed it in a more obvious position on a tall boulder, but left it on the hillside. Not knowing whether the owner had been heading up or down.

As we approached the ridge which marked the end of our walk, it became apparent who the owner of the bag was. A woman was descending the narrow path fast ahead of us.  She asked shakily if we’d seen her handbag. We replied that we had and tried to explain its general location before she continued down the hill in something of a panic.

Dad and I continued to the Lochan, where we sat on a rock on the beach and ate our packed lunch. The view was so glorious, we forgot about the lady and her lost bag. Until we stood up to begin our trek back down the hill, when we became aware of a kerfuffle at the brow of the ridge. A pair of walkers were becoming concerned about their friend, exchanging worried words. The lady we passed still hadn’t returned since going back to search for her bag. We told them we would keep an eye out for her on the way down.

We did see the lady again. She had struggled to find the bag, it not being as easy to retrace your steps on the rocky hillside as we had imagined, despite the well trodden path. In the event, the lady was fine and ultimately re-united with her property, but a fledgling seed had been sown in my mind.

A story was beginning to crystallise. I didn’t know what form it would take, but several ideas had interested me; the issue of the lost bag – what if there was something very valuable or perhaps incriminating inside? And then the idea that even a supposedly familiar landscape can become quite alien in certain circumstances. I was sure that I wished to explore these concepts further.

Upon our return to Essex, I geared up the laptop and began to write. Within a few weeks I had penned the prologue to my first novel, Aoife’s Chariot. By the following July, the book was finished.

In the five years that have followed that summer, I have written  a further sixteen books and given up my teaching job to pursue my writing career full-time. Why that particular holiday was special; triggering a compulsion to write and tell stories, I really cannot say. Perhaps it was simply the right time.

Arran has always been an important place for me. It is an island where you can feel quite free from the concerns of everyday life. The location probably allowed my creative tendencies to flourish. I can’t be certain. But that particular fortnight in the summer of 2012 undoubtedly changed the course of my life for good.

 

Why having a plausible plot really matters

imageHaving just released the ninth instalment of my DCI Dani Bevan detective series, the issue of plotting is currently at the forefront of my mind.

As part of the editing process, the first read through of any new manuscript focusses on making sure that the plot hangs tightly together. The characters need to be acting in a way that’s in keeping with their personalities and the storyline mustn’t have any inconsistencies or ‘holes’ that will ruin the reader’s experience.

By coincidence, in the last few days, I read an article criticising modern crime dramas on tv for not possessing the same attention to plot detailing as their novel counterparts do.

I found myself agreeing with the sentiment wholeheartedly. The recent BBC1 series of Line of Duty has been a case in point. Although action packed and full of twists and turns, critics have pointed out the many inconsistencies and unlikely scenarios thrown up by the plot.  I enjoyed the series at first, but became increasingly frustrated with the implausibility of the action.

As writers of crime, we have to carefully balance dramatic action with plausibility. If nothing exciting happens in your book/script it will be dull and slow moving. Conversely, too much twisting and turning can make your readers suspect an author is resorting to shocks and gimmicks to gain their attention, rather than relying upon more fully developed storytelling.

Many viewers enjoyed Line if Duty, despite the plot holes. So does the plausibility really matter? It depends. The article I read suggested that tv dramas could use visual tricks to distract viewers from these inconsistencies. Something that books could not replicate. But I think this underestimates crime viewers. Largely, we overlook the errors because very good crime dramas are few and far between. Whereas excellent thriller novels are more commonplace.

The reason it is so crucial to keep the plotting and characterisation plausible is because this is where you most successfully hook a reader or viewer into your world. If characters act in a way someone in real life wouldn’t, or their motivations don’t make sense, the viewer stops believing in the imaginary world you’ve created. It makes them less involved with the characters and (literally) causes them to switch off.

Writers must always treat their readers with respect. Plot consistency is fundamental to the crime genre. A truly great piece of work will have both action and plausibility. It is certainly possible, so we must strive to deliver it.

Is it okay for modern writers to give their own twist to a classic?

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I’ve noticed a few cases of this recently. Perhaps because I did a similar trick with my latest Dani Bevan novel, Dark Remedies, I’m more attuned to spotting the phenomenon, or maybe since Sophie Hannah began revisiting Hercule Poirot as a character it has become a literary ‘thing’, I’m not sure.

I read Ruth Ware’s excellent book, The Woman in Cabin Ten on holiday last year and was amused to discover it was a modern day re-working of Agatha Christie’s The 4.50 from Paddington, except transferred to a cruise ship. Ware’s style is a self-confessed homage to the golden age of crime, so this nod to Christie’s classic must have been entirely intentional. And very successful it was too.

Whilst following BBC1’s 20th anniversary series of pathology drama, Silent Witness last month, I was interested to note how one of the two-parters was a latter-day tribute to Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train. Two men, with no connection to one another, meet by chance and each agree to commit the other’s murder for them. The police are baffled, as they cannot link victim and perpetrator. It is one of the best plot lines in crime fiction and one would never argue it belonged to anyone but Highsmith, despite the fact most people probably know the story from Hitchcock’s film rather than the book upon which it was based. The Silent Witness writers have done this before. I’ve noticed episodes which have resounded noticeably of Ruth Rendell’s psychological novels at their height, playing on their London setting perfectly.

I admit freely that I’ve done it myself. When plotting Dark Remedies, I wanted to create a kind of ‘locked room mystery’ to unfold. I immediately thought of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. It had always fascinated me how Christie had deftly catalogued the impact of the discovery of an unidentified body of a woman in a house where no one knew who she was on the apparently innocent residents. I switched the concept to modern day Glasgow and transplanted the body of the girl into the swimming pool at the luxurious home of a TV celebrity.

My intention to use The Body in the Library was an affectionate one. I love the original. The concept is all I pilfered, the rest of the story and characters are entirely different. In this sense, I used the original work as an inspiration only, it was a springboard to a new mystery, with perhaps just the odd knowing reference to the old.

I like the idea of this. I enjoy it when I identify where my favourite modern writers have been influenced by those greats who came before. I’m sure none of us writers who’ve done it would claim to be equaling the work of masters like Christie and Highsmith. We are dothing our literary cap to them and celebrating how their greatest ideas can still live on in new ways.

Although, I prefer it when the act is performed openly. If a plot or concept is lifted but not attributed to their originator, I would feel very uncomfortable, despite the fact there is no legal requirement to do so. There is no intellectual property attached to ideas and concepts, only to passages taken verbatem.

I believe it’s perfectly okay for modern writers to give their own twist to a classic, but credit needs also to be given to the original.  Then it is the very best form of flattery a writer can give.

News for the New Year

Aoife's_Chariot_Cover_for_Kindle  Ocasionally, moving forward can involve a nod to the past. As regular followers of my blog will know, with each new year I like to take on a new project. Last January, it was the completion of my first children’s book.

For 2017, I will be revisiting my first ever novel, Aoife’s Chariot, which started the Imogen and Hugh Croft Mysteries series, but was a standalone novel in itself. For a while now, I have been considering how Aoife’s Chariot could be transferred to the screen.

The very first of my books seems to lend itself perfectly to visual media as the landscape plays such a crucial role in the story. I can picture the scenes and the characters as if they were already made flesh.

Screenwriting is a complex skill. I don’t imagine that it will be the same as writing novels. I’ve already been looking into the techniques involved and noting the process. It will be a project of trial and error. Certainly a challenge, but one I’m looking forward to. We need to keep learning new skills and I’m relishing the thought of revisiting an old favourite; written when I had no idea if there would be an audience for it, but being committed to the strength of the story nonetheless.

I shall keep you updated with how the process is going. It may be that I need to bring in outside expertise, as I did with the audiobooks of Against a Dark Sky and On a Dark Sea. But finding out is all part of the fun, isn’t it?

The books I wrote in 2016

As a review of the year, this seemed the most obvious place to start. It’s nearly Christmas Day and time for reflection upon the year passed. It was a significant one for the world in general and in that context, not a great one.

But our own personal experiences tend to take precedence in our memories. For me, 2016 was a decent year. It was a challenge –  with our daughter sitting SATs exams and going up to secondary school, but these events bookended a gloriously hot summer; where our visits to the nearby east coast were reminiscent of the sweltering heat of the Mediterranean.

In terms of writing, it has also been a good one. I’ve not replicated the prolific production of 2014/15, but I feel that the four books I published this year have been amongst my best. I wrote a standalone psychological thriller in the Spring which I have wanted to do since the start of my writing career. I suppose to prove I could produce a novel outside of the serial format.

Yet, my DCI Dani Bevan series continued, with Hold Hands in the Dark and Dark Remedies being released at the start and end of the year respectively, which saw Dani dealt a series of tough blows in her personal life.

Imogen and Hugh Croft were not left out this year either. I produced an anthology of short stories in March which was inspired by the short stories of Agatha Christie. I wanted each tale to be an intricate puzzle in itself, where the reader could pit their wits against Imogen to solve the clues. As always, the Imogen and Hugh instalments have a hint of the golden age of crime to them, although solidly set in the modern age.

A completely new departure for me this year was the conversion of the first two Dani Bevan novels into Audiobook format. It was the first time I had worked with a third party and the experience was a revelation to me. David Monteath provided the voice over to the text of these books and captured the atmosphere perfectly, bringing the stories and characters to life. I hope this will be the start of a long new chapter for the Dani Bevan series.

I have the next book plotted and part of the research done. This will be the project that starts 2017, which I hope will be a creative and prosperous one for us all!!

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

Leaving books on the underground? Nice sentiment, bad idea.

imageWe have commemorated a number of significant and poignant events over the past few weeks, but one anniversary has slipped past un-recorded by the media. On the 18th November 1987, a horrific fire broke out in King’s Cross Underground station, London. Tragically, 31 people were killed and dozens seriously injured. The event led to several crucial changes in the law relating to tube travel.

The fire itself had begun on a wooden escalator leading out of the station and up to the ticket barriers and concourse above. Although smoking had been banned on the London Underground since 1984, it was believed that many commuters still lit up on the escalators in preparation  for leaving the station. A discarded butt from one of these cigarettes was thought to have ignited the layers of litter which had built up underneath the escalator, along with the wooden structure itself. The ensuing inferno engulfed the lower levels of the station and was excaberbated by the jets of air created by trains exiting the platforms to escape the blaze.

It was a terrible event and one that those of us around to have heard the details have never forgotten. My Dad commuted on the underground during those years as I was to do a decade later. The King’s Cross fire was one of those tragic events that bring forward progressive safety-legislation. Wooden escalators were banned from stations and anti-smoking rules more rigorously enforced. It also became entirely socially unacceptable to litter on the tube. During my years travelling the Central Line to work, in the decades that followed, the tube felt a much cleaner, safer and more modern place to be.

A new fad, encouraged by actress Emma Watson, who admitted to ‘secretly’ leaving books with messages in them on the underground for people to find, has led many fans to leave books on trains in various parts of the world – from China to America. The trend deeply worries me.

Yes, books are special, more than just sheets of paper with ink printed on them. But in material reality, that’s all they are. In fact, more flammable than an empty crisp packet or chocolate wrapper. Yet to discard one of those on an underground train would be completely unacceptable.

I can see Emma Watson’s point, but I think it’s ill-conceived. Please donate your books to charity shops and libraries, or your local school. But to begin to witness dog-eared paperbacks on benches in stations and on the padded seats of trains will only prove to be a symbol to people that it’s now okay to leave your discarded goods behind you when you leave a public place. It isn’t. We’ve moved beyond that stage as we became more socially responsible and aware of the results of our actions.

Yes, I love books. I’m an author and a publisher. But I love progress and the preservation of human life more. Most commuters now read novels and newspapers through their phones and iPads. This is progress. It means less litter on our public transport system and the wider dissemination of literacy to the masseses. Emma Watson’s idea is sweet, but it’s misguided and out of step with the ways that literacy will be promoted in future.

So if you’re tempted to leave your paperback on the train when you’ve finished it, please don’t. The change in attitude towards litter on the underground was not achieved easily. It took a desperately tragic event to shift popular attitudes. Let’s not allow them to shift back again, over at best, an ill-thought out idea and at worst, a cynical publicity stunt.

 

When a character just won’t let you go.

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I’ve been considering this a lot recently. I’ve just completed book 8 in my DCI Dani Bevan series and with each new instalment I have to decide if it will be her last.

So I’m always fascinated when I hear other writers discussing the right time to end a long-running series, particularly a popular one with readers. I was impressed to read recently that despite its incredible success, Sally Wainwright will only pen one further series of Happy Valley. And even then, she won’t be releasing the script for some time, as she wants one of the characters to be older, as it fits with the way she feels the story is going.

Wainwright did much the same with popular ITV drama series Scott and Bailey, which was wound up in its fourth instalment earlier this year. With television production being so risk averse, this is a bold move for a scriptwriter. But Wainwright appears to remain true to the story and to the integrity of her writing.

Watching BBC2’s excellent documentary about the life of novelist Sue Townsend last night on catch-up, highlighted for me a situation that was quite the reverse. It seems that Townsend’s most popular character, Adrian Mole, whose Diary of 1980, gave the writer her first real break, proved reluctant to let his creator go.

After The Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 came its follow-up, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. What I hadn’t realised was that Townsend had written a number of later books exploring Adrian’s life. She commented in interviews that every few years Mole’s voice would begin to speak to her again and she knew he had more to say to the world. This would trigger a new book.

I found this concept intriguing and also recognisable. Sometimes your characters do feel as if they have more to share. A few months after completing a book, you will hear that inner voice nagging at you once again. A new story will inevitably follow.

I wondered how many other authors experienced a similar phenomenon. I make no secret of believing that literary characters take on a life of their own and almost appear to ‘write themselves’ at certain stages of the novel production process.

Sue Townsend’s extraordinary life had many fascinating aspects to interest both writers and readers alike. It turned out that Townsend had witnessed a notorious murder when she was only 8 years old. She claimed this had forced her to ‘turn in on herself’ and escape into a world of fiction. Townsend suggested that many authors had been driven to pursue an active inner life because of a similar trauma in their lives. I wonder if that’s true.

I think the undisputed success of serialised novels indicates that very often for a reader and a writer, a character or set of characters refuses to let us go.

When should we finally say goodbye? There are no easy answers. In Sue Townsend’s case, she clearly never did.

Meet the Team

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The Garansay Press has been in operation for just over three years now. We have just published our sixteenth book. So, I thought it was about time to properly introduce the team.

I am Katherine Pathak (far right of picture). I’m the author and head of media and marketing. I write the books, the blogs and the majority of the tweets. If you are communicating with any branch of The Garansay Press, you are likely to be interacting with me. My academic and work mini biog:

University of York, Institute of Education, University of London. Purchasing Assistant, Good Book Guide. Teaching History in several London schools. Full-time author.

Robert Currie (second left). Bob is the finance director at The Garansay Press. He is also a member of the editorial team. Now retired, he still finds himself book-keeping for several organisations and start-ups. Bob is our Mr ‘details’. Also my dad. Mini biog:

RBS manager and securities consultant (retired) Company Secretary (various)

Rakesh Pathak (centre of picture) Rakesh is one of our editorial team. A busy man in his other roles, his conscientious copy editing is invaluable in getting the best out of the final product. Mini biog:

University of Oxford, Institute of Education, University of London. Head of History. Author of IB textbook.

Susan Currie (left of picture) is our resident crime fan and aficionado of the genre. Sue is our most efficient copy editor and is expert at making sure my prose style remains tight and plot focussed. Mini biog:

Dean College of Nursing, Edinburgh. RBS (retired)

To find out more about The Garansay Press and our publications please follow us on Twitter @GaransayPress and like our Facebook pages: Facebook.com/GaransayPress Facebook.com/Katherine.Pathak

 

Bookish frustrations: The Book Snob

image As an author of crime thrillers and psychological mysteries I am no stranger to the book snob. Certainly in the traditional publishing world, there is a great deal of snobbery directed at the relative  value of the crime genre. It is undoubtedly popular, but is it proper literature?

Of course, I would say yes. Some of our most talented writers have produced work in this genre, from Stephen King to Susan Hill. And I really think that snobbery around crime is beginning to diminish, although I believe it still lingers in the genre of romance. In fact, if you are looking for modern takes on human relationships and the human psyche, they can be found in abundance in the very best of these books.

After a debate I had on Twitter last evening, when a Mumsnet thread had unleashed a stream of vitriol against Orchard Books’ Rainbow  Magic series, I was reminded of the dangers that book snobs can pose to the promotion of literacy. The Rainbow Magic series are fairy stories, fairly generic, very girly but highly popular first independent reads for 6-8 year olds. For a couple of years, my daughter devoured them. So imagine my surprise to find perfectly reputable educational sites calling for this series to become ‘land fill’.

Firstly, I’m uncomfortable with any rallying call for the destruction of books. To me, books are a symbol of freedom of expression and speech. Civilised, open nations, do not censor or destroy books, let alone perfectly harmless and inoffensive ones. The whole notion has unpalatable historical implications. Secondly, I cannot see anything wrong with the Daisy Meadows series. Yes, it’s repetitive, no they won’t be winning any literary prizes, but strangely enough, thousands of children adore the stories and the books have introduced them to a love of reading. Should we really impose our adult constructs of what is proper, worthwhile reading onto our children? Certainly not.

If my son wants to read the instructions to the washing machine I’ll be happy. If he tore his way through the Rainbow Magic series I’d be turning somersaults in the street. When a child develops a love of independent reading, they’ll whip through anything you give them. I know plenty of highly educated, intelligent friends who read all of their Mum/Gran’s Mills and Boon novels as an early reader. I read my Gran’s Georgette Heyers and Jean Plaidy’s. Then we move onto other stuff, it is part and parcel of the great process of becoming a literate adult, every stage has its own joys.

These days, book snobs tend to reside only in the editorial departments of ‘literary’ magazines and on the sofas of the more ‘selective’ book clubs; those who chose their titles by what they think they should be reading rather than what they actually want to.

Let’s not impose this snobbery on our children, because they don’t possess it until we foist it upon them. Kids read what they like, what they enjoy. To take away that freedom is a terrible act. Of course books need to be appropriate for the age range, that goes without saying, but children should be encouraged to read a broad range of books – fiction and non fiction. Just like us adults. Because I read crime and mystery, it doesn’t mean I can’t also read history books or the latest Booker Prize winner. Variety is the spice of life and the key to creating lifelong readers.

Please don’t encourage children to look down their noses at certain types of book, or make them feel inadequate for choosing to read something they enjoy rather than something we feel is more substantial or worthy. You’ll just put them off. Popular doesn’t always mean inferior. The classics are great and have their place, but the language can often be very antiquated and inaccessible to early readers. They’ll get there in their own time. Until then, let’s simply enjoy the wonderful variety of books and quality of authors we’ve got out there, because it’s truly tremendous. And we can only hope that the Book Snob will eventually become a dying breed.

 

Is it really possible to own a concept?

imageThe news this week that Love Productions have accepted a lucrative offer from Channel 4 and will move The Great British Bake Off away from its home at the BBC has raised a number of questions for us creatives.

Clearly, the production company owns the intellectual property to the format of the show. Yet the announcement that presenters Mel and Sue will not be making the move along with it introduces some thorny issues. How much do the established presenting team bring to the table (pardon the pun) when considering the value of the concept?

We have already been required to make a judgment on this very question in relation to the massively popular car show Top Gear. The format belonged to the BBC, but when Clarkson, May and Hammond left en masse, what worth did the format still have? The latest series without them indicated that viewers remain undecided. I find this an interesting comparison, as there is far more to the concept of Top Gear (in my opinion) than there is to that of the Bake Off.

Can you really own the rights to the concept of a baking competition? Surely not. They’ve been taking place in tents on village greens up and down the country for hundreds of years. There would be nothing stopping the BBC from launching another baking programme along similar lines with the same presenters. As Jeremy Clarkson said after his dismissal from Top Gear last year, he would simply make another car show, there were plenty about.

But is it really as simple as that? The Bake Off is a huge and recognisable brand. From the music to the showstopper finale, the format will be tough to replicate well, even with Mel and Sue on board. If reports are correct, the concept of the technical challenge and the signature dish are worth up to £25m a year for a prospective broadcaster. Their pulling power for audiences and users of social media are perceived as so strong.

But I am fascinated by the idea that a concept can be owned in such a decisive way. As a novelist and indie publisher, I have always understood that ideas cannot be copyrighted. To prove plagiarism in the fiction genre, to steal a plot line or scenario wouldn’t be enough. Another writer would have to have lifted chunks of text word-for-word in order for you to claim a breach of your copyright. Fair or not, this is the way it works in books.

Perhaps in tv terms it is easier to protect your ideas. I don’t know enough about the intellectual property law to be able to say. All I know is that a book without its best characters loses a significant part of its appeal, even if the setting and storyline remain the same. I suspect that the Bake Off that so many of us have adored since its launch in 2010 will suffer a similar fate.

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