The things they’d say… and wouldn’t say

Whilst I would never claim that my Darkisle novels should be classified as Historic Fiction, the fact remains that they are set in our world, during the 1920s. Very few people still living will remember that period, but all the same it’s a time we all know SOMETHING about . That means the reader has every right to expect that the background of the stories feels authentically Twenties-ish. Jack, my protagonist, shouldn’t be able to hop on a jet airliner, or cross the Channel on a hovercraft, or flash a credit card, or even make a direct telephone call to someone. Should a reader encounter something they know is wrong for the period, it will jar. And that jarring will take them out of the place that I, as the writer, want to transport them to.

Okay, it could be argued that getting the FEEL of the period is more important than getting every single fact correct. Does it matter if Jack made a telephone call without going through the operator, so long as the conversation he then had used the right words for the time and moved the story along? For many readers, perhaps not. But for some, it will. I see it as my job to keep jarring to an absolute minimum – and the only way to do that is to check the facts. I suppose, if I had wanted an easier life, I’d be writing either contemporary fiction (where I already know the technology and language in use) or fantasy (where they’re what I damn well say they are!).

I can think of a couple of examples. In ‘Tribute’, the middle story in my ‘Hobbs Top & Other Horrors’ collection, I wanted a ten shilling note to pass hands. A nice old-fashioned touch, I thought, as the note was phased out in the 1960s. But something made me check – and lo, the ten shilling note wasn’t issued until 1928. And ‘Tribute’ is set in 1923! So, back I went and changed the text to ‘two crowns’ – which was the same amount of money, just without the flourish of waving a piece of paper. Would leaving a five-year-too-early banknote in the story have been spotted by many readers? Probably not. But it was wrong and I knew it was wrong, so it had to go!

Something similar happened when looking for a disparaging word for a policeman that Jack could use. ‘Plod’ sounded perfect… until a quick check revealed that its use was inspired by the character ‘PC Plod’ in an Enid Blyton book that wasn’t published until 1949. Darn it!

Luckily, I’ve found a great resource to help me. It’s Ngrams, an application in Google Books that has values for the frequency of use of words in a number of languages over several centuries (and, for English, offers either British English, American English or both combined). It really is a boon!

Let me give you an example. In ‘Those Under The Hill’, Jack is lent a bag to use when out walking. But what to call it? Now, to my modern mind if I have a bag with straps that I put my arms through so I can carry it on my back, I call it a backpack. But that has a modern ring to it, so I checked it on Ngrams, which returned the following:

Uh oh. ‘Backpack’ wasn’t used at all until the 1970s and really only took off in popularity this century (as you can see, Ngrams gives different returns when you search on a single word, depending on case. Not sure if I like this feature or not). Ok, my second choice word was ‘rucksack’, so I checked that out next. A useful feature of Ngrams is that it lets you compare multiple words. So, if you’re torn between two or three choices, you can see which would be most likely used at a given date. Here’s the result for both ‘backpack’ and ‘rucksack’.

Ok, so for my novel set in 1922, ‘rucksack’ looks alright. Its usage line twitches into life just after 1900 and the word was slowly increasing in popularity by the 1920s. Hmm, but then there’s ‘knapsack’ – that’s quite an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? I ran a comparison of that with the other two words.

Right! So, while people aren’t all that likely to say ‘knapsack’ nowadays, back in the Twenties it was the go-to word. Armed with that knowledge, Jack takes his trusty Webley revolver and a map, throws them in a knapsack and heads for the hills.

Here’s another example; should a novel set in the past use the word ‘jail’ or ‘gaol’? Well, Ngrams can help with that:

As you can see, in the England of 1922 the ‘gaol’ spelling would have been preferred – but ‘jail’ was by no means unheard of, so I can get away with it if I want. Incidentally, this is often seen as a case of an Americanism pushing out an older British spelling; not true. Both spellings have co-existed since they were coined in Middle English. What is true is that the eventual preference for ‘jail’ in the USA sparked the decline in ‘gaol’ elsewhere.

I should also point out that words that you think are dead and buried often seem to be used more frequently nowadays than you might expect – this could be down to the number of articles on the internet saying something like “gosh, nobody says ‘knapsack’ or ‘gaol’ anymore”.

Finally, I should just mention that Ngrams isn’t limited to single words. Here’s how it would have helped with my ‘PC Plod’ research:

So, there you have it! I think Ngrams is a pretty cool resource if you want to set a story in the past. I’m not saying my 1920s characters will now never utter a word or phrase from a later era (or an earlier one – that can happen at times!). But at least the chances of it happening are a good deal less now I know about Ngrams.

Why not have a play for yourself? Have a look at

Another chapter, another smidgen

As such, it was a relief when the steamer made the sanctuary of Darkilby. The harbour was quiet, with no tramp steamers or colliers present. Even the large freighter called the ‘Sleih-Marru’ – something of a fixture during my previous visits – was absent. All there was to be seen was the town’s small fishing fleet and a few sailboats of varying seaworthiness. As we disembarked along with a handful of other passengers a sudden sleet shower greeted us like a slap in the face.

As with any part-time author, writing progress is at the whim of other things in my life, and the last couple of weeks have not been easy ones. But I’ve managed to complete Chapter Two! Above is an excerpt from it: Book 3’s ‘back to Darkisle’ moment.

A first peek

On the strict understanding that this could change over coming months, here are the opening few sentences of the new novel.

The latter half of 1922 was a good one for my private detective business. The unexpected arrival of Josine from the United States that June marked an upturn in my commercial fortunes, due almost entirely to Miss Young herself.

Of course, we both knew that the world we had become involved with would not leave us alone forever. And so it proved when – that December – someone tried to kill the two of us.

So starts the Prologue! Now, I have heard it said that prologues are terribly old fashioned and modern novels should avoid them. I’m not entirely convinced by that line of thought, but even if I was I would argue that the Glennison Darkisle Cases series is supposed to be drawn from the journals of Jack himself. As someone born in the late 19th century, he would think it quite normal to start his account of events with a prologue.

Hence, the prologue stays. So there!

Here we go…

So, finally I am getting down to Book 3. Here’s the Moleskin notebook that I got for Christmas and have been saving for this moment! It even came with a branded pen (which I’m less keen on; the clip makes it heavy and doesn’t actually clip on anything very well, so I can see it getting lost pretty quickly!).

I really like notebooks that (like this one) have a pocket at the back for loose notes. I have transferred across from my last book notes on the Deverby succession, the Sedgewick family tree and some building plans. I may need them, I may not! Plus a photo of our sadly departed Emmy the black labrador, which I guess is a sort of talisman.

Here we go!

The best laid plans…

July is slipping by and I’m afraid I have to report a delay to the actual writing of Book 3. The trouble with (slowly) increasing my Twitter network is that I keep seeing these really tempting short story calls for magazines and anthologies. Well, I saw one a few weeks ago that it turned out I couldn’t resist in the end. A story gradually formed in my mind that eventually pushed Book 3 into the passenger seat and took over the wheel for a week or so!

In my defence, this particular short story is set in a hot July and we were in the middle of an actual heatwave. Book 3 will have a wintry December setting, so my mind just wasn’t in the right place as the temperature in my International HQ (aka the garden shed) exceeded 33 C!

I still have some editing to do, but otherwise that itch is scratched, now, and I can settle down to Book 3 with renewed energy! And it’s not as if I’ve been doing nothing – background research and refinement of ideas continue. So does the sketching of little maps, as evidenced below. Nothing quite says laser-focussed planning in detail like “Village up here-ish.”

Thickening the plot

Bit by bit, the story of Book 3 is continuing to take shape. I don’t know how it works for other writers, but I start off with a broad sweep of plot in my head. It has a start point and an end point, with maybe a set-piece scene or two already in mind. From there, it’s an iterative process, one that starts with a fairly fuzzy wide shot, then gradually zooms in on each element of the story in turn. Each iteration sharpens the picture a bit more… but not before it has thrown up some problems, of course!

In fact, I find that plotting a novel is essentially a problem-solving process. That’s fine by me; I like that sort of thing. Some of these problems are technical ones that can be solved by research. They’re the easy ones! That leaves the tricky ones – what motivates the characters to move through the plot? How do they react to each event? What do they know, what can they work out and what decisions do they then make?

Which is all a way of saying that the characters end up driving a lot of what happens. And yes, that really can mean that the story will take a turn I had not originally intended! The number of times I have found myself saying “No, they would NEVER do that… they would do THIS…” and off the narrative goes in a different direction. Oh, it still gets to where I need it to be – but invariably by a more interesting route than the one I had planned!

So, that’s where I am at the moment; turning over the key scenes in my mind and thinking through how the characters will act. As I do so, the motivations that drive the characters and the hooks I will need to pull them to the next scene become apparent. Honestly, I sometimes feel my first draft is as much a surprise to me as it is to my readers!

It’s not a very predictable process, so I can’t say when I’ll be getting down to writing the actual story. All I know is, not quite yet!

Beer and Book 3

Ok, I promised an actual post with some content, so here it is!

It has been a busy couple of months since releasing ‘Those Under The Hill’, the second of my Jack Glennison novels. During that time, I’ve been taking a break from Darkisle. Apart from pushing the new novel (and its predecessor, ‘The Gathering of Shadows’), I’ve been focussing on some short story submissions to magazines and anthologies. And not a bad success rate, though I do say so myself! Four submissions, with two acceptances, one near miss and one still pending.

Anyway, on with Book 3! The ideas behind my Darkisle fiction have been kicking around in my head for years. Decades, even. But there’s a big difference between having an idea and getting it down as a story, of course! Last Saturday saw the start of that process for Book 3.

It helped that it was warm and sunny, that I had the day to myself and that there was a mini-Beer Festival on in Durham, down by the River Wear. So off I went with my notebook (for making a start on the plot), phone (for research) and Robbie the rescue greyhound (who serves no useful purpose at all).

I was fairly satisfied with the results. I’ve got a plot outlined (two plots, in reality) and a really clear idea of the finale. Now to get them to mesh together, with the right characters in the right places, with no inconsistencies and with the overall arc of the series progressing as planned. I would love to be able to say that all this is thought out in advance and laid down with military precision, but in truth it’s a rather haphazard process with me, with lots of scribbled notes (often joined by arrows to other scribbled notes), many crossings out and the occasional sketch map. It’s all very organic at first, with a lot of trial and error. There will be some order applied, at some point, honest. Just not yet!

So where did I get to in the space of a sunny afternoon (and five pints)? Well, some thoughts on another part of Darkisle to explore. A rationale for some interesting developments within the Church of the Celestial Shadow. One idea for Something Horrific. And some interesting uses for copper sulphate…. The picture above summarises the progress during the second pint (with the pen hiding a plot idea, and the redacted area hiding the Horrific Something).

Early days yet. I’m still a way off actually starting to write. But the process has started!

Robbie, however, didn’t look overly impressed….

A first blog post!

So, I have it on good authority that authors should have blogs and who am I to argue? Here, then, is the start of mine. Not much of interest yet, just to let you know I’ll be using this mostly to post updates about my writing. Particularly – for the next few months – concerning Book 3 in the Glennison Darkisle Case series – currently going by the imaginative working title of ‘Book 3’. The next post will be more interesting, I promise!