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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Book Review: The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

I'd almost made it a rule not to review any book I read related to my Ph.D because I know Victorian fiction can be... stale, shall we say, to most people. However, when I finished The Haunted Hotel last night, a relatively short work by Wilkie Collins, I was terrified. I was so disturbed that I was extremely reluctant to turn the light off, and I can honestly say that's something I haven't experienced through a book before.

The beauty of The Haunted Hotel is that it doesn't rush to explain everything. It's essentially an old-fashioned ghost story, set partially in Venice, which relies on both psychological manipulation and the depiction of truly gruesome images.

I have to say, I was unsure about the first couple of chapters which focus chiefly on one of the antagonists of the novel, Countess Narona. I honestly felt a little cheated when I discovered she was embroiled in the mystery but Collins had a reason for everything. The beginning, therefore, is a trip through the family history of Lord Montbarry, Countess Narona's fiancée, which can seem to detract from the main event but is merely delaying the deliciousness of the plot proper.

Agnes Lockwood is the heroine of the story, a woman in love with Lord Montbarry before he marries the Countess. After his death at a hotel in Venice she finds herself unable to let go of his memory and marry his brother, Henry, despite being jilted by the Lord. She takes up work as a governess and when the family go to Venice they find themselves in the very hotel in which the Lord died.

I refuse to ruin the plot but I will say this: it may not be the gory shock-shock-shock of a modern horror novel but the quiet, steady build of Collins' narrative is positively more disturbing. The ghostly images which wouldn't be so frightening on their own are coupled with grotesque discoveries that root them firmly in reality.

It's a short novel - my compact copy is 190 pages - but I'd call it a book to read if you don't like reading Victorian fiction. It feels extremely modern in parts, like CSI in the 19th century.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Unintended Imagery

It's one of the most surprising things in my writing experience - reading through a manuscript and discovering a set of images you never intended to be there.

Actually, though, I'm of the opinion that it's been the norm for writers for quite some time. I extol the classics - Fielding, Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon - but I don't honestly believe they had much more of a clue than we did. I can't deny they wrote fabulous novels but some of those things we pore over? Not completely deliberate.

I've just completed the final read-through of my manuscript. I was amazed as I read aloud how many references to graveyards and death I'd littered around the text without even noticing. Yes, my main location was a converted church but, beyond that, I had corpse imagery in a bar, spectral imagery in the street - it all seemed to mix together delightfully.

The key is to spot it early. You might've peppered a couple of recurring images throughout your WIP but if you recognise and grasp it you can easily enhance it, make it into a prolonged image that has a bearing on your main plot.

My preoccupation with death was more than just my brain being creepy. My protagonist was a bit of a recluse, living in this converted church and painting constantly. Although it wasn't a deliberate decision to coat the text with graveyard imagery it certainly fits with her personality and the dilemma her love interest has in trying to prise her out of there.

Once I spotted it I had to run with it. I can't be sure - I accept I'm too close to this novel at the moment - but I think it enhances the overall effect. I do love my subconscious sometimes.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Classic Openings: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is the latest offering from Sarah Waters, the reigning queen of period fiction as far as I'm concerned. Although I've noticed that fans of Waters either love or loathe it I found it an entrancing read. As it was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize I think the critics are in agreement!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was in Empire Day fete: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain - like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

1. First point, Waters introduces the main character here - though it may not look like it. Hundreds Hall is so central to the novel I don't hesitate in calling it a primary character. It is described, analysed and utilised more than any person really. And, to that end, Waters must focus on it in her first paragraph. By describing it through the eyes of a child she can portray it simplistically - but also with the value of hindsight. It's always important for an author to get retrospective viewpoints at just the right level between childish inference and adult interpretation but Waters has always been an expert at that.

2. Offering snippets of background. In this opening paragraph Waters overtly gives backstory to the reader about the Ayreses but it reads so smoothly that the reader doesn't notice. The voice is so easy to slip into that exposition doesn't feel so taxing. This is partly down to Waters' style but it's also due to good characterisation - Dr Faraday's narrative voice is there from the start.

3. Waters brings out the details. As Dr Faraday remembers the details of the house so he impresses them on the reader. It's an effective way of fixing something on the audience - they'll remember through a memory. At this stage, also, the reader is lapping up details. By picking up certain details on the very first page Waters can be confident they may be remembered. And, in this novel, everything seems to have an emotion attached.

Buy it here.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Settings of Your Scenes

I think the knowledge that your setting for any piece of fiction needs to be more than incidental is drummed into our heads enough.

Setting equals a realistic experience for the audience, drawing on the setting can lead to a richer experience... Yes, yes, yes, we know all that. The trouble for me at least is remembering that setting doesn't have to be an overarching thing. It can - and should - be utilised on a scene by scene basis. Make sure you have a reason for setting your scene in a given location. Does the location add to it, complicate it, or is it merely decoration?

My current project takes place in a small Lancashire town. That's the main setting. Within it there are a couple of core places where the bulk of events take place: a storage facility on an industrial estate, a bar and a cottage. These are - I hope!- sufficiently well-described and utilised and I know precisely why I set certain scenes in those locations.

But on several occasions I take my characters out of their element. Two such instances are a park scene and an unfamiliar pub scene. I picked the park because, dare I say it, I thought it sounded pretty for the kind of deep and meaningful my characters were due to have. That's all well and good but I used it only as a backdrop. In my first draft I expected the reader to fix on their idea of a park and that'd be it. Fair enough, most people have an image of a park in their heads. Yet there was more to do with the scene. By picking an aspect of the park and underlining it I tied the location to the thought-processes of the characters. Suddenly the setting was a participant in the scene.

As for the pub scene... well, that needs more work. It's an unfamiliar environment, something we writers should relish exploring. My protagonist has more of an opinion than she's expressing, I know that much. I just have to coax it out of her.

A couple of questions to ask if you think your setting is nothing but a backdrop:

1. Can you easily pick up the majority of the action and dialogue and shift it to another location? If you can then the setting probably doesn't influence the scene at all.

2. Does your chosen setting impact the characters at all? For maximum effect, does it take them out of their comfort zone and, if so, have you exploited that?

3. Are you relying too much on certain locations: could you mix it up a little?

Monday, 19 July 2010

'I've Seen This Somewhere Before...'

Foreshadowing is one of those things that rarely occurs in first drafts. Unless you've got the multi-tasking mind of a genius, that is. I barely manage to keep track of my characters, keep a vague idea of my plot, and grasp the realisation that I have to draw it to a conclusion at some point without worrying about the intricacies.

Then came the rewriting stage and I started panicking - yes, I was telling a story, but did my novel work on any other level. I was whining constantly to myself: I want to create something that'll last. Well, to be fair, isn't that what we all want?

Something that adds another dimension to a novel is foreshadowing. I'm a huge fan of Jessica Page Morrell's book Between the Lines, a masterclass in writing the subtle elements of fiction. Although many writing books can feel like repetitive wastes of time and money, this one gives practical advice and uses many examples to back up the theories.

According to Morrell, foreshadowing can be used to lay the groundwork for three specific things: set pieces, character transformations and secrets. The one that I've been focusing on in my latest rewrite is the notion of set pieces.

One dramatic scene towards the climax of my novel involves my heroine being thrown violently against a table, garnering herself a nasty head wound in the process. This action in itself is unsurprising given the situation but I wanted more so I dropped in clues along the way that everything was about to spiral out of control. More than this, I concocted a mirror scene to take place in an earlier chapter.

Lily, my heroine, has a perfectly plausible fall down some steps after suffering a night of panic and exhaustion. She is cleaned up by her friend, Marie, in a scene that foreshadows the aftermath of the table incident detailed above. By inserting this scene I aim to increase the tension a little as the reader realises that Lily isn't immune to injury. Also, I wanted the echoes in the second clean-up scene to confuse the reader. Marie's intentions are ambiguous throughout and I feel this unseats logic even more.

Added to this, screenwriters are often told to repeat important images. This fixes something of importance in the viewer's mind and highlights the significance of it. Marie's helping Lily says a lot about her as a character at both junctures.

See? Not something I could've accomplished in my first draft!

Something to try if you're struggling with foreshadowing is to imagine the individual beats along the way to a particular incident. If A has to happen for B to happen so that C can occur what about the bit between A and B? If it's exposition of some variety then perhaps it can be utilised to foreshadow forthcoming events as well as filling in backstory or plot detail.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Book Review: Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah

By now I think anybody glancing at this blog will have gleaned that I'm a Sophie Hannah fan - an unapologetic one, I must add. I love her writing in all forms and the fact that I'm able to enjoy her novels for the first time is one of life's little pleasures.

Hurting Distance is the second in her on-going series about police officers Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. It was first published in 2007 meaning I'm a little late with my review but you can't be penalised for discovering a fantastic author late surely? It follows the same pattern as the other books in the series - alternating between the police POV and the victim's.

Generally, the plot of this one isn't for the faint-hearted. It's gritty, painful to read at times, and exposes an aspect of humanity I didn't really want to know about. If rape is an issue that makes you squirm this book isn't for you. However, Hannah doesn't shy away from probing deep into the mentalities of the characters involved and she has a delicious habit of setting up events in so subtle a way that even an astute reader would have difficulty keeping up.

The serial elements of the novel are explained well enough for new readers to settle right in. I must admit though that I've disliked Simon a little in the other books I've read. This one helped me understand him more; the same with his colleague, Charlie.

Overall, I'd recommend reading the series in order (!). But, if you can't and just want a book to pick up, this is far from a bad choice.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Holding Back

It's a symptom of being human that we don't reveal everything to everyone. Some of us don't reveal anything to anyone! But even if you're not a paranoid wreck who believes that someone could use the knowledge you need bread and milk against you there's got to some things you keep to yourself.

Characters are the same.

It happens more in television, I suppose. Soap operas are renowned for people spilling their darkest secrets over a drink to the person who just moved in next door. Of course, that person was always angling for the information anyway because they're a long-lost relative out for revenge for an incident with petrol and a box of matches years ago... for instance. They need to tell the secret because the plot needs to progress and on screen it's much easier to go down the route of a confession. Yes, you can certainly show rather than tell on television but inner turmoil is something much harder to portray. I'm not denying there are some exceptional actors out there but there are indubitably some flops too.

What you have to bear in mind whenever your character reveals anything - be it in a script, short story, novel, whatever - is they must have a reason for disclosing that information right at that moment.

Is he the type of person to open his mouth before he thinks about it? Fine, but make sure that isn't a conveniently placed character trait that won't appear again.

Is she the type to hold back her surname for fear people may know her family? Okay, so don't have her introducing herself as Stella Cricks at a gala then gushing about her relatives to all and sundry.

It comes back to the old adage about knowing your characters. However, you must trust your reader as well. If a character is lying for whatever reason you don't have to highlight it at the time - if it's a mystery you're writing that'll kill off all suspense faster than you can draw a big glaring line. Trust that an untruth will stalk your characters and don't contrive ways for them to tell the audience things they should be able to work out on their own.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Book Review: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

First of all, I'd like to apologise for disappearing for a few weeks. Two bouts of illness in succession mixed in with pure exhaustion, I'm afraid. But at least I've got the sickness out of the way in one go - at least, that's the theory. Anyway, I'm back, and I've just finished reading a fantastic book.


Nights at the Circus is one of those books that people are told they should read. As a consequence, when I was told to do so for my Creative Writing class on my undergrad I refused on principle. I disliked my tutor intensely and this defiance felt like a mass rebellion for me. But, then, I always was the type to cut my nose off to spite my face.

Three years later I pulled the unopened book from my shelf and dubiously opened it. I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself for letting my prejudice against one teacher cloud my judgement of a good book. (Incidentally, another of my favourites, Murphy by Samuel Beckett, was set on the same list and suffered the same treatment.)

Angela Carter is not an author to read by the pool. Every word, every image counts. If your attention slips you can find yourself reading the life history of an auxiliary character without realising it. Carter slips into character exposition that the unobservant reader won't even see it coming. More than that, her ruminations never seem superfluous. I trusted her completely and lapped up every observation she had to share. That kind of literary lusciousness may not be every reader's cup of tea but I couldn't get enough of it.

There are ostensibly three sections to the novel (though, as mentioned, Carter drifts into various character histories throughout leaving chronology a little unimportant). In London, a cynical journalist, Jack Walser, is interviewing Fevvers: the famous aerialiste, the Cockney Venus, the bird woman. Though the events of about a hundred pages take place over one night the way Carter weaves other voices into her narrative means it never grows stagnant.

The second section takes place in St.Petersburg as Walser joins the circus as a clown in order to stay closer to Fevvers. He's unlucky, becoming a human chicken and almost falling prey to a tigress during their stay in the city. Some of the most striking images of the novel occur in this section; my personal favourites being the moment Fevvers realises what precisely the Grand Duke expects to do with her and the moment Buffo, the head clown, actually tries to eat Walser, the human chicken. It's a grotesque scene which affords a shudder every time precisely because madness is that surreal.

Finally, the circus ends up in Siberia. The most poignant observation of the novel comes in an explanation that, at first glance, seems completely unrelated to the events of the novel thus far. Carter suddenly diverts into a House of Correction, a home for female murderers and the like where they suffer more than in prison or on the gallows. Although it feels like a massive deflection from the plot, the reader should've grown to trust Carter's diversions by now. I had and wasn't disappointed with the progression of the plot.

I'm determined not to ruin the highlights of the novel for anyone who hasn't read. That makes a review rather redundant, I suppose, but the book is well worth reading. Don't see it as a chore or something to be endured. Carter's preoccupation with fairy-tales and grotesque images mixed in with a compelling cast of characters is something to savour.