Monday, 29 July 2013


(Yes, I know.  It's been months.  What can I say?  I'm still suffering from writers' block.  I most fervently wish it were otherwise.)

The picture above is of a common weed.  As you can see, it is not particularly pretty.  I nonetheless allot it a space in the garden--corner of the fence, near the clematis--where it can flourish undisturbed.  Why?  I discovered that it bears the name of 'enchanter's nightshade'--and how could I eradicate from my garden a plant with a marvellous name like that?

Wildflowers often have wonderful names: 'traveller's joy', 'heartsease', 'viper's bugloss'.  Disappointingly, however, the names don't always seem to fit the plant very well.  Take this one:
It's much more attractive than enchanter's nightshade, but its name is  sneezewort.   If I were writing a story and I wanted to evoke a beautiful meadow, I could not very well describe it as full of sneezewort, toadflax, pignut and ragwort.  It would create the wrong impression--even though all those flowers are exceptionally pretty ones.

Names in books are awkward. They automatically create expectations in the reader.  An action-man hero called 'Nigel' or 'Julian' would be laughed at; romantic heroines are unlikely to be named 'Sue'.  If an author names a character 'Daisy' or 'Buttercup', the girl's either going to be a simple country lass or the author is playing games.

When I'm writing a historical novel I usually compose lists names as I do the preliminary research--subdivided by sex and origin, so that I have a list of, say, 'Roman British Male Names' and 'Roman British Female Names' and 'North African Male Names' and so on; then, when a character appears for the first time I run down my list and pick something that seems to fit.  Often I discover that another character who appears later fits that name better, and then I have to go back and rename the first one.  (When I started writing, this was a matter of checking and retyping: 'Find and Replace' is ever such a nice command!)  Sometimes a character is hard to name.  I once wrote the first chapter of a book with the main character and first person narrator written as *** because I couldn't make up my mind what to call him.  As for books themselves--either they have a name almost from the moment they're conceived, or I can't think of a title at all, and end up exchanging suggestions with the publishers.

Of course, the most important task of naming is one most of us do at some point:  naming a new baby.  The rules to that, however, are very different to those that govern the naming of a character in fiction.  You don't worry about fictional characters being bullied at school: you may even assign that fate to them, as part of fleshing them out.  Babies are much closer to the heart.  

Friday, 5 April 2013

Thieves and Hitmen

The other night the dog--the lovely beastie above-- may have scared off a burglar.  We don't know that for certain, of course: all we know was that she made a lot of noise in the middle of the night, and there was a corresponding sound at the back door.  It's possible, though: we were burgled twice during the first two years after we first moved into this house, but in the twelve years since we got a dog we've had no trouble.  Good dog!
By chance I'd been reading a moderately entertaining fantasy novel about a thief, and it brought home to me the stark contrast between attitudes to theft in fiction and in everyday life.  Thieves are very popular as fictional heroes, and not just in fantasies.  From Robin Hood to Raffles to modern thrillers, they're cast as dashing outsiders who dare to take on the powers-that-be; their victims are usually depicted as stodgy snobs who can easily afford to lose both cash and dignity.  I enjoy a good heist movie as much as the next person, but sometimes I wonder: have the scriptwriters never been burgled?
The first time we were burgled, I lost the contents of my jewellery box.  Most of the stuff in it wasn't particularly valuable--my great-grandmother's pearl earrings might have been, but even their value in cash was a pittance compared to their value as a family heirloom passed down four generations.  The worst loss, though, was of a little butterfly necklace, not valuable at all except for the fact that it had been bought by my father for my daughter when she was eighteen months old and he was dying of cancer.  It was the only gift she would have from him, and it was probably sold it to a dodgy second-hand shop for a pound or two,  the money used to buy dope.
That, of course, is the sad truth about thieves: most of them are not suave jewel thieves swanning about on yachts in the Med.  No, they're pimply adolescents or smelly drunks, snatching whatever they can to feed their addiction, and their victims aren't high society snobs but ordinary people.  The statistics are clear, too: poor people suffer more regularly than rich ones.  I am sorry about that butterfly necklace, but even more sorry about the playstation taken from an acquaintance's mentally handicapped son: it was his greatest pleasure, and when it went he curled into himself and gave up.
Theft is nasty; it requires an absolute indifference to the effect of the theft on the victim--and that's just burglary.  Robbery, which by definition involves violence, is worse.  In real life we know this: we exclaim in horror and sympathy about the friend or acquaintance mugged; we know all about the visits to A&E and the often-debilitating after-effects--the fear of going out, the depressions, the panic attacks.  In fiction, however, we're happy to cheer for the gunman during the stick-up.  We're even willing to make heroes of hitmen, as numerous films and books have proven.
Of course, we don't really approve of murder, let alone cold-blooded murder undertaken by a professional for a fee.  Violence is and always has been a staple of fiction because it fascinates: we're afraid of it, and sometimes tempted by it; it is dramatic, exciting and scary.  It's natural to want to tell stories about it.  I just wish, though, that our stories were more truthful.  After all, thieves watch movies, too, and I suspect that they find the false glamour comforting.

Saturday, 2 March 2013


Yes, I know.  I didn't manage a blog in February.  February is to blame: a wet, muddy misery of a month when the most exciting thing that happened was being struck down by flu.
Now, however, it is March: the first month of spring, according to the Met Office.  It's true that for the next three weeks there will still be more darkness than light, but the light has been increasing and before the end of the month it will gain the upper hand.  It hasn't rained for a week, and the quagmires of the local woods are beginning to dry.  Daffodils are in bud, crocuses are just opening, and the snowdrops are in full flower.

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices, et descrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt , as Horace put it--or, in Housman's rendering,

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.'

I always find it odd that students of English think Robert Graves was a great classicist and are surprised to hear that classicists don't think much of him, but revere A E Housman.  Graves, of course, is famous for the 'I, Claudius' novels.  I don't actually like them--I find the style flat, the female characters impossible, and the historical accuracy not what it ought to be. (You can't believe everything you read in Suetonius!) He is also famous for the 'White Goddess', a hypothesis about matriarchy and syncretistic goddesses which has virtually nothing behind it except the author's imagination.  Housman, in contrast, wrote a learned commentary on Manilius which has Latinists swooning with admiration, and an emendation by 'Hous' in the apparatus criticus of any text provokes reverent attention.

Both men wrote poetry, and I love the poetry of both--though if I had to choose I'd opt for Housman again, especially in this season.
Since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Realism in the New Year

Yes, I know.   I haven't written this since September. I was feeling disheartened about the whole business. However, it's a new year, so I suppose I should resolve to write this at least once a month.
The thing that provided the impetus to blog again was this:, which got me thinking about realism in fiction.  It isn't news, of course, that crime fiction is not, generally speaking, very realistic (though I love the statistic that Cabot Cove's murder-rate is half again as high as the very worst figure in the real world.)
I don't suppose that people read Agatha Christie for realism.  They enjoy the puzzle, the period, the stylized speech and characters: the murders are just an excuse.  I think, though, that certain other crime writers do claim to be 'realistic', sometimes even 'gritty'.  This usually means a lot of graphic medical details and a lot of sex, violence, and substance abuse.  I'm not sure, though, that this sort of 'realism' reflects the world most of us inhabit much more than Christie does.  Even on the bleakest housing estates, most people do not engage in drug dealing, prostitution or murder, and most of those who do don't do so all the time.  In any life, there's much, much more tedium than drama.  The thing that really makes fiction 'unrealistic' is the way that tedium gets left out--because, after all, who wants to read about watching telly and doing the laundry?
'Gritty' historical fiction can be as unrealistic as the criminal variety.  I remember visiting a Norman castle near Saffron Walden which was fitted with wax figures supposedly informing the visitor about medieval life.  Of perhaps twenty of these, there were four or five who were not being hanged, tortured, or suffering monstrously at the hands of doctors.  Yes, of course, medieval people were hanged and tortured and did suffer monstrously at the hands of doctors--but mostly they worked on the land, raised kids, baked and brewed and cooked dinner,  talked, told stories, argued, fell in love, went dancing or to church--in short, lived lives.  Books which represent life in the past as all violence and cruelty misrepresent reality as badly as those which treat it as a romantic idyll.