The books that made me

Today’s blog comes from my metaphorical sickbed. This week I’ve spent four nights in hospital and have committed not a word to hard drive. Sorry. So, without a status update or any insights into the creative writing process, here instead is a quick canter through a few books and authors that I count as major influences on me and my writing. Hope you enjoy.

Sargasso of Space – Andre Norton

A half-remembered classic, one of my most formative experiences of science fiction. My Mum read this to me when I was but small – around 10, maybe. Looking back, I remember not the story so much as the atmosphere Norton created. First published in 1955, it’s a very British novel with such a different feel to the writing of Asimov or the other early American pioneers. It was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Terra’ and also contained the Psych test, now thoroughly ‘appropriated’ by me for the Night Shift novels. I reread one of her later novels recently and found it to be quite stiff, especially in dialogue – very much of her time. But her voice remained strong and her stories are always gripping.

Five Red Herrings – Dorothy L. Sayers 

Gaudy Night has the most beautiful writing. Murder Must Advertise is the classic crime novel. And yet this is the one that I have most admiration for. There are six suspects in a murder investigation: five of them are red herrings. That’s it. Beautifully plotted, I read it for the first time relatively recently and couldn’t help but smile at the deftness with which the story played with itself. Plus Wimsey really does stand up as a character, even in these cynical and proletarian times.

Caliban – Roger MacBride Allen/Isaac Asimov

Don’t be fooled by Asimov’s name – this is one of those ‘by Isaac Asimov, with RMA’ things where you know that all of the work was really done by the lesser name (are you listening, James Patterson?). This novel’s all but unknown now and that’s a shame because it deserves a lot better.

Asimov’s involvement is in the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics and in sketching out the consequences of these on humanity. He posits that they’d create an indolent, unproductive society, cosseted by an ever-worshipful army of dependent robots. But when a robot becomes lead suspect in a murder enquiry society might choose to sacrifice their planet for short-term comfort.

This, you’ll notice immediately, is classic speculative fiction: ‘so if things continue like this, how will they be in a century?’ It’s also a quality crime novel, and a massive, massive influence on the Night Shift trilogy. It’s also a series I’ve re-read many, many times and have lent to many, many people.

Archer’s Goon – Diana Wynne Jones

A confession: I watched the series before I read the book. Well, children’s TV was worth something in 1992. This is everything you want in junior fiction. It’s inventive, funny, thrilling, and a tour de force of the imagination. Howard, the young protagonist, arrives home after school to find a Goon in his kitchen. That’s it – no messing about, we’re right into a wonderfully surreal adventure in a town controlled by seven mysterious siblings, all with their different areas of responsibility.

A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

I’ve written before about PKD. About how I’m not a fan of his writing – and, like Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is a story that might actually be better on screen. But the ideas – the ideas! Oh, I can’t tell you how this affected me when I first read it. Unsettling, terrifying, dislocating. I can’t tell you too much because I’ve stolen ideas liberally. Just, if you are going to read this, be prepared for some extreme scowling at the page as you try and decipher those hopelessly convoluted sentences.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

My first taste of Gaiman and still (alongside Good Omens) my favourite. With an everyman hero and a delightfully off-key world – at the same time larger-than-life and sad and tarnished – London Below is a beautiful labyrinth. It also has some of the best villains in literature. Don’t just take my word for that – ask Mr Pratchett, who lifted Croup and Vandemar wholesale for Discword novel The Truth. I’d have been a teenager when I first came across this, long before I knew I wanted to be a writer. Lenny Henry’s involvement was the big news, not Gaiman’s input. In hindsight it’s a wonder this didn’t make more of an impact because it captures the imagination like nothing else.

UnRoman Britain – Stuart, Laycock

Non-fiction time! And historically/archaeologically dubious non-fiction at that. Which is not to say this isn’t based on good solid evidence, just that the conclusions Laycock draws aren’t widely accepted in academia.

This matters not a jot. This is a fascinating work and one with a good strong story; that of the collapse of Roman culture after the last of the legions left Britain. I doubt you’re interested, but it fascinated me with its analysis of cultural change throughout (and before, and after) the Roman occupation. It strongly influenced Chivalry and, whether or not it all happened like Laycock posits, it really made me think how people react to authority. And what they might do when that authority is removed.

Holy Blogpost, Batman!

There’s always been a vogue for lone-wolf heroes in fiction. The detectives of film noir and the hard-boiled authors who created them. The avenging hero atoning for or avenging the deaths of his family. The lone survivor of some plague or catastrophe. It’s a standard trope.

 

But actually one that’s pretty rare. It’s far more common (to my perception, at least) for the hero to have a partner – a sidekick, a companion. A Robin for Batman, a Watson for Sherlock, A Samwise for Frodo. Detective novels often have the enthusiastic junior to contrast with the cynical old protagonist. So what makes a good sidekick? Or what makes a bad one?

 

All of the examples above annoy me somewhat, each for a different reason. Sam Gamgee strikes me as the real hero of Lord of the Rings but never gets his due. Robin (and I’m thinking of TV rather than the source graphic novels) mainly exists to demonstrate how great Batman is. Whilst Watson’s job is mainly to say ‘remarkable, Holmes’, and impress upon the audience how much of a genius his friend is. His roles in action are, to say the least, limited.

 

But at least he’s a fully-drawn character with back-story and a life outside the main action. He has a wife (or wives) and his own surgery. And I think that’s one of the most important things when designing secondary characters; they must have lives of their own. No-one sits around waiting for the call to action. People act on their own volition, whether that’s a good thing or not. In third-person narration that’s not such a problem; the sidekick can actually be seen doing things, taking initiative and generally getting up to mischief. First-person narration gets more tricky. It’s far too easy to accidentally create a world where nobody does anything unless the protagonist is there to witness it. This is, of course, stupid.

 

Another annoyance of the sidekick is when they’re too stupid to do anything but stumble into trouble. (Very) old Doctor Who is particularly bad at this; the Doctor’s companions sometimes seem to be nothing but wandering-off-and-screaming-and-waiting-to-be-rescued machines. You’ve all watched movies when you’ve shouted at the screen, telling her (it’s – or at least it was – usually an attractive girl who does this) ‘don’t be so bloody stupid – you’re alone in a big scary house when you know there’s a killer/monster/trap so don’t go in there you moron!’ You ask yourself why on earth would this hero – self-reliant, resourceful, charming – would associate with such a prat. Is their ego so fragile that they need the constant reassurance that the grateful heroine provides as she grabs his arm and sobs in relief?

 

Very few people exist in isolation, and when solitary characters appear in fiction their isolation is usually a major part of the story. Most other people operate in a world where they regularly interact with others, and this needs to be understood by the author. This is especially true in crime novels, where frequently we’re going to have a whole phalanx of policemen in the wings. Now it’s absolutely fine to draw peripheral characters in simple outline; you can’t (or at least it’s not worth) creating a whole biography for each walk-on constable. It’s also fine to start with a stereotype, as long as you overlay it with enough detail to bring it alive. It’s not acceptable to treat them as if they purely operate at your beck and call without some understanding of what they may have been doing ‘off-stage’. This can be as simple as having them grumble if they’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night to answer the hero’s call, or adding a tiny explanationette as to why they were already awake. And for this to be consistent to the way we see them both previously and subsequently.

 

You should also avoid having a character whose only purpose is to flatter the hero. Watson sort of gets away with this as the Holmes stories cleverly have him as the ‘chronicler’: his role from the start is that of a passive observer. He’s meant to be an everyman, a sounding-board for the detective’s genius. So even as I beg him to act, to show some gumption and not be so bloody stupid, I can accept that isn’t his role. But that’s been done now. There’s nothing worse than seeing some brain-dead bimbo simpering at the hero’s rubbish jokes just because it’s the author’s secret wish-fulfilment.

 

Bunter, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, is a far better example of the sidekick. The hero’s butler (yes, I know – but this was the past, when things were different, don’t you know?) is introduced as a purely walk-on character, but as the story develops we find that he used to be Wimsey’s batman in the first world war and has strong personal links to his master. This immediately gives him more depth. Then, as the series develops, so does Bunter. He gets married and takes up photography – back when that meant having a darkroom and clumsy experimental kit. Moreover, he can take an active, often off-screen, role in the stories without it seeming forced.

 

The other thing to avoid is to go too far the other way. A ‘magical’ sidekick can often seem not too far removed from our old friend deus ex. These creations often have ridiculously useful skills, such as extreme computer mastery, deadliness in unarmed combat or is a word-perfect diplomat. It’s a difficult balance: okay, so Margery Allingham’s Lugg can pick locks. Great – he can get the hero out of all manner of pickles. But the sidekick can’t suddenly turn up and say ‘oh, I solved all our problems. I’ve disarmed the criminal, locked him in a tiny windowless room and, by the way, solved global warming. Turns out it was a con all along’. For us to feel some emotional payoff we need to see the hero do these things.

 

Unless the whole point of your novel is that the sidekick is really the hero, as Watson has been in several Holmesian revisions of the last few decades. But that just makes the hero into the sidekick, and at this point we’re tiptoeing dangerously into the postmodern.

 

Some common sidekick archetypes: bolt any two together for your boil-in-the-bag comrade. More than two and you risk overcooking it.

 

  • The muscle
  • The love interest
  • The saint
  • The wild-man
  • The personal organiser
  • The specialist
  • The comedian
  • Captain clumsy
  • The savant
  • The opposite

On Ideas

No-one’s ever asked me where I get my ideas from. I guess that’s because the people I talk to about writing have tonnes of ideas of their own, so they don’t talk about it much. But it’s always struck me that this question – where do ideas come from? – is wrong. Fundamentally so. Because ideas are all around us. Seriously, if you’ve any sort of enquiring mind you’ll barely be able to walk a hundred paces without being assailed with ideas.

Take that wall you’re strolling casually past. Why was that built? When? Who might live behind it? Oh, that’s a cool-looking alley. I wonder who might lurk down there?

See? Ideas all around us.

I think people who don’t write sometimes have this image of writers (and artists, musicians, actors etc) as people who are somehow different, that we see the world in a different way.  I’ll tell you now we’re not and we don’t. Everyone, everyone, is jam-pack full of ideas, whether it’s how to deal with an annoying colleague or how to improve on some new gizmo that’s just been produced by the engineering department. Ideas are cheap. They’re nothing special. And 99% of them aren’t worth much.

The trick is to have a second idea.

Take your average novel. Think about it. How many ‘ideas’ are in one book? In the crudest terms you’ll have at least three: you’ll have plot, setting and character(s), and each aspect requires a different way of thinking, of inspiration.

This is why I’ve so far been unable to write my great historical novel. I can create convincing characters and I reckon, now I’ve done years-worth of reading, that I can create a setting that has depth and colour. But I’ve yet to come up with a killer plot to bind everything else together.

And plot – what most people think of as the ‘idea’ – without setting, without an atmosphere to breathe in, is nothing. Unless you’re Franz Kafka, a plot without a world is a waste of time.

The trick, for me at least, is to find the right combination of ideas.

Imagine your head is the Large Hadron Collider. You have an endless circle, an endless flow, and into that you pour Your Idea. There it goes, zooming away… But it’s a solid, solitary thing, out there on its own. So, to give it company, you tip in a whole bucket-worth of fragments, of half-developed concepts and rudimentary characters. What you’re hoping for is that magical moment when two ideas smash into each other and react in strange and wondrous ways; to produce something that is neither addition, nor multiplication, but change. Something new. Something different. Something more than the constituent elements ever could have been on their own.

The Higgs-Boson of ideas.

I said in my first post that Chivalry came out of the question ‘what if a game could start a war?’ This is true, but what really made the idea take off was when I combined it with ‘what if you tried to live by the code of chivalry in the modern world?’

When I was working on Night Shift someone once asked me if I could take it out of Antarctica and set it in a country manor or somesuch. I couldn’t answer. It’s true that the novel shares, deep in its DNA, a common link with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (and did so more in its early drafts). But…

But the setting is so integral to my concept of the novel as a whole that to make what might appear to be a superficial change has a profound affect on how one views the work in its entirety. I don’t think I’d be able to write the book in a different setting, now. Not because of the work that’d be needed – work is work, be it minor editings or massive structural revisions – but because that’s not what the book is to me.

It’s also important to remember that ideas change. No collision of thoughts leaves the nucleus unbent. Thus those questions I mentioned above remain unanswered; they’ve been bastardised into grotesque mutants by the initial impact, and then further twisted to fit my needs. I suspect that’s why authors (and musicians) return to the same themes again and again and again.

They’re still trying to answer their questions. They’re still trying to refine their amalgams into perfect shining swords of truth.

They’ll never get there. I’ll never get there. But that’s really, really not the point.