#secondthoughts : Female characters

 

hidden figures 2

 

There’s no arguing with the fact that people are influenced by role models, young people especially. That influence can come from both real life and the made up one – you know, fiction, film, TV …

Whilst there are some excellent examples in the made up world, there does seem to be a preponderance of male characters, especially in terms of breath of character – strong or weak, kind or cruel, clever or stupid, successful or loser, straight, bi-sexual, trans-sexual or gay. Why aren’t we seeing the same reflected in female characters?

I believe there could be a rather big gap between indie and mainstream writers, for there are plentiful female – and varied – characters being written, but it’s rare they receive mainstream attention via traditional publishers and/or production on big or small screen.

One of the common reasons I’ve seen given for not depicting a similar quantity and range in female characters on the big or small screen is that art needs to reflect life, or it isn’t believable. Whilst there may be a tiny grain of truth somewhere in there, is it just me who feels it’s been used as an excuse? I’d find it more believable if writers admitted that they didn’t – personally – know enough examples of anything other than the limited range we see on screen, so didn’t know how to get it looking realistic. Before you think I’m defending that position, I said believable, not acceptable.

Let’s ponder on some of those extremes depicted in male characters.

Clever or stupid – unusually, the recent Oscar nomined film “Hidden Figures” had four central characters who were clever women. If it hadn’t been based on the true story of women working in NASA during the early years of the space race, would anyone have considered it believable enough to get it written, or published, or put on the screen?

Kind or cruel – whilst women are generally depicted both ways, they are expected to be kind. Because they give birth, their hormones are believed to make them better suited to the caring duties and professions – and when they don’t fit this stereotype, they’re often cast as cruel and unnatural.  In depicting this particular spectrum, is what we’re seeing real life … or societal stereotypes?

What about strong or weak? Strong female characters are rare (and if anyone suggests to me that Jane Eyre is a strong female character I may have to fall out with them), while strong and successful female characters are rarer still. Yet in the realms of the fantasy genre, they are a not infrequent scenario. It cannot be that all writers of such characters in fantasy are female (like Suzanne Collins of “Hunger Games” fame), so is there some reason why the usual excuse for the paucity of (and lack of variety in) female characters – that of art needing to reflect life – doesn’t apply in fantasy?

There’s a fair bit of noise about a current TV series on the BBC called “Bodyguard” where the central (male) character provides personal security to the (female) Home Secretary of the UK. Unusually, I’ve watched the first few episodes at the same time as the rest of the viewing public (I tend to be a box set watcher). Himself and I shared the same immediate impressions so, I was surprised to read the immediate response being an enthusiastic greeting over the number females appearing in traditionally male roles – railway police officer, police sniper, armed response team leader, head of police personal security section, head of police counter terrorism section, as well as the Home Secretary herself. And whilst that is pleasing – all but one of those characters are minor and their depictions largely just a sketch.

What is decidedly less pleasing is the plotline involving the Home Secretary – the second main character. The first episode sets her up as an ambitious, successful, determined (ball-busting even) professional woman, who’s taken a hardline over terrorism and deployment of the armed services. Then she gets a personal security officer who we’re told is good at what he does (more on that later) and she goes all gooey-eyed before leaping into bed with him. I don’t care how frightened she was to come under fire and get covered by the splattered brain matter that was once her chauffeur – she’s the Home Secretary – and a pat on the back/hug and a cup of tea/strong drink is the acceptable behaviour here. I don’t care if she’s single and has had a terrible shock, it just doesn’t ring true.

Even if we accept the presumption that sex sells, why didn’t the writer have her character simply use our bit of silent hot totty as a relief for the trauma, and then go back to ignoring him as normal? This isn’t the only aspect having me raise my eyebrows, there are plot holes a-plenty, but the only one relevant to this particular discussion is when the Home Secretary comes to the conclusion that the head of police counter terrorism caused the delay to the armed response unit coming to her aid … yet does nothing about it? Heads on pikes at the tower would be the right response.  You don’t get to be Home Secretary by being a fluffy-wuffy bunny.

I looked up the creator and head writer of the series and had to ask if he’s fulfilling that stereotypical male fantasy of a powerful woman needing a man to support her, preferably one of the strong silent type? For if we stick with the rationale of art imitating life, are we really going to suggest those senior female politicians (Home Secretaries included) we have had, went gooey-eyed and wobbly-kneed over their security officers? Whilst the press are trumpeting that it’s based on Amber Rudd (something she seems to be having a bit of fun with) even she states that although the relationship between principal and bodyguard is close, it’s not that close.

In a slight change of subject, that same day I read the account of a female author and writer of fantasy who was interviewed by readers at a recent ComicCon. Here are some of the questions asked of her by male readers – whether her husband helped with the writing, whether he verified her world building, if she’d had a predominantly male critique group to help her figure out how to write combat, and wasn’t her work really romance as that’s what women write? They also found it necessary to ask if she really did think up where her characters got their food from, where they got their lumber and clothing fibres, how they kept their water clean and how they managed sanitation. Really? Was she sure she didn’t need her husband to check that?

Now, I know that not all male writers and readers behave this way and my co-host here at Fiction Can Be Fun is an example of one who does not. Indeed, he created a strong and successful female character in our recent A-Z story, that of lady Michaela – engineer, inventor, gunsmith, clever, talented, and equal to her male cohorts.

I don’t believe that it’s entirely a gender-of-writer related issue. I believe David & I reflect what I see in the wider writing community. Neither of us feel the need to limit ourselves to writing about our own gender. We’re entirely comfortable writing strong women or weak men, and vice versa, depending upon the need of the storyline. That said, we both feel strongly that positive role models need to exist across both genders, and so do our best to provide them.

What we need is for mainstream publishers and producers to do likewise, rather than play to the current stereotypes surrounding women.


© Debra Carey, 2018

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#secondthoughts: an argument for adverbs

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing recently, about the advice given by writers, to writers, and ultimately editing.  Writing and, primarily but not exclusively, the editing phase, is a lot like sculpture: it’s about starting with a block of an idea, of some collection of words, and removing all the extraneous words until you can’t remove anything else without fundamentally moving away from what you want to say.  This isn’t an original description, but is one that I have used with my day-job students, because this works with factual writing as well as fiction.

One of the things that I tend to focus on when editing my students’ work – scientific issues/intellectual agenda aside – is that of ensuring that we don’t repeat ourselves.  That can be quite tricky to deal with sometimes, because you need to link back to things that you said earlier, but in a way that doesn’t just repeat what you said the first time.

Different people have a different focus.  One piece of advice that a lot of people seem to like is to strip out all the adverbs – Hemmingway App (which I like a lot, but disagree with everytime I use it) allows you a ration of so many adverbs per chunk of text.

Adverb:  a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When it comes to editing, adverbs are an easy target: ‘using an adverb to modify a verb just means that you didn’t use a strong enough verb in the first place’.  Whilst that is sometimes true, this is something that does need some thought when it is applied – removing all the adverbs can limit your palette significantly.  Who am I to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King on this subject?  I’m certainly not suggesting that they don’t know their craft.  Recently though, I’ve seen a few descriptions of editing out adverbs which have given me pause.  The English language is full of all sorts of foibles that can be difficult to describe, let alone teach, but words tend to carry gradations of ‘weight’ and meaning.

One example I’ve seen suggests that “walked slowly” is bad and could/should(!) be replaced by “crept” or “tip-toed”. I don’t know about you, but I rarely tip-toe, even – perhaps especially – when I’m walking slowly.  The nice thing about walking slowly is that it can be used in a range of contexts, whereas crept, for me, should be reserved for spies and school boys on their way to class.

So next time you’re editing, do ask yourself whether you should really be using that adverb or not, but don’t automatically reach for the delete key either:  English is a varied language, and all the more beautiful for it.

*****

If you are interested, Hemmingway App, pegged this as Grade 12, and thought that I should have only used 3 adverbs.  I used 14.  To be fair, it is tricky to write a piece about adverbs and not use any.  It also thought I should change ‘exclusively’ to ‘only’ and ‘modify’ to ‘change’.  You can see why writers get cross with editors, from time to time.


© 2018, David Jesson

#Secondthoughts: Where Eagles Dare

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

There are some phrases that just seem right.  They work.  They’re so good that they enter the population and almost become some kind of genetic memory.  These days we tend to call them memes and they get hacked about by anybody with access to a meme-generator, in order to illustrate a point.  I will freely admit to having done it myself once or twice.  But before the internet, before we knew they were memes, there were lines from books and films that became short hand for jokes, or action scenes, for heroism, or dark deeds.

Thirty years or so after the first time that I read “Where Eagles Dare”, and the famous radio call-sign exchange still brings back memories of Alastair McLean novels, and a slew of WWII films.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

Social Media can be a strange place.  You never quite know what will catch on.  By chance, I happened to notice that #WhereEaglesDare was trending on Twitter the other day, so I thought that I would have a quick look.  It turned out that the film was showing on some channel or another, and people were flagging it and then talking about.  The opening credits came in for a mention, and yes, they are pretty good.  I’d dispute that it is the best film ever, though.  The film has some great set pieces, but I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that it was miscast, and that the adaptation of the dialogue was not quite up to the mark.  I’d even suggest that it is worth remaking the film – Richard Burton, as Smith, is rather wooden, and Clint Eastwood, as Schaeffer, is…Clint Eastwood.  To his credit, at least he put a bit of effort into climbing the rope, instead of using a scissor lift…  a young Nathan Fillion might have been a good Schaeffer, I don’t know who the equivalent would be at the moment.  But I digress.

In any film, there are a number of things that need to come together, including the casting (and the on- and off-screen dynamic between the cast), the cinematography (including special effects), and the script.  In the case of a film adaptation, the casting is especially important, as is the script.  For fans of the book, if the writer did a good job then you will have a mental picture of the characters.  In terms of the dialogue to inform the script, you’d hope that it could just be picked up and plonked down as is, but of course there will be scenes that can’t be included – but you really need that line, yes that one there – and so the process of revising the script begins.

In terms of a film adaptation, whilst I love Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone and WED – all for different reasons – I’d argue that Where Eagles Dare is the best adaptation of the three.  But it also shares in one of the biggest frustrations that I have with the Lord of the Rings films: they messed up the humour.

When you think of Lord of the Rings, the inherent humour is probably not what springs to mind.  I will be the first to admit that we are not talking about a laff-a-minute, light-hearted read, but there is humour, albeit somewhat understated. The film adaptation, to my mind, makes the cardinal sin of rejecting the humour that Tolkien wrote into the book, and importing a totally unnecessary slap-stick element, usually at the expense of Gimli and the dwarfs.  I recently came across the term “Mary Sue” to describe a character who is improbably skilled at everything: in LOTR, the Elves, and in particular Legolas, become a race of Mary Sues, leaving the dwarfs to bumble along as the comedy country-bumpkins.  But that’s another essay.  Suffice it to say, that my view is that Legolas and Gimli were designed to be a balanced pairing in the author’s mind, and that there are all sorts of things that don’t work properly because the relationship between Gimli and Legolas is undermined.

So too, then, the balance between Smith and Schaeffer is not quite right in WED.  The humour is muted, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle.  Burton is, as I’ve said, a bit wooden – it almost feels like it should be one of his last performances, but it’s not; Burton died young, but worked for another 15 or so years after this film.  The book is a little more thoughtful, and doesn’t reduce the Germans to ciphers – at least, not all the time.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

And now for the kicker.  Having written all of the above, having assumed that the book came first, I’ve just discovered that McLean wrote the film first and then the book.  Apparently Eastwood didn’t like the original script and asked for fewer lines, which surely must be a rarity in the acting profession.  On the other hand, he got to do most of the action, so it probably worked out about even.

Even with that last minute shock revelation, I stand by the view that the book is better than the film, but perhaps now we need to say it is because McLean had the opportunity to polish things – and he didn’t have to worry about troublesome actors.  His characters would do as they were told.  He also had the opportunity to embellish some scenes and add depth – so for example the pilot who drops off the team and picks up the survivors gets to be a proper character rather than just an extension of the aircraft.

How about you?  Any films where the script/casting messed up a really neat book?  Any favourite books that got a good film treatment? Any films that fell flat even though they had an all star cast and the dialogue was straight off the page?

“Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Recieving”


© David Jesson, 2018

#secondthoughts – Writing Groups

When first I started to scribble very late in life, unlike most writerly types, the very thought of letting another human being – be they stranger or friend – look at my words, made me shudder. A lack of confidence – of course – is at the root of it, but there were reasons (and not just excuses) that formed an orderly, if not overly lengthy, queue.

We all know that ‘proper’ writers have written since they were young, so how could I be (or become) a proper writer, if I hadn’t put pen to paper till past my 50th birthday? Then there was the lack of training – I did sign up to an online writing course, only to find it wasn’t at all what I was looking for; worse, that it was out-of-date in the information and resources provided. So without training, without some form of certification that I could do this, how would I know whether I could – or not?

Eventually though, I did start to write, and to write and to write. Then I moved to blogging – annonymously until I felt ready and able to face the world as a writer. A big part of that was David’s suggestion that I co-host this site. Whilst it took me waaaay out of my comfort zone, it’s been a massive boost – both in terms of confidence and in the requirement for regular practice.

That said, writing is a lonely old process, so the instinct to club together with a clan of writers was strong. But the question I kept on asking myself was what benefit can be derived from joining a writing group?

Too nervous and not having anything I felt was ‘ready’, I avoided critique groups like the proverbial. My primary focus was how much I have to learn, and where better than from those who are already doing it? I avoided the fear (you all know what I’m talking about) by steering away from the high-powered-author hosted courses, as I don’t feel far enough down the road yet and know I’m likely to end up feeling intimidated rather than empowered. Nevertheless, clear that I needed (and wanted) to learn from the already published – whether self or mainstream – as well as those still writing, editing, querying – I dived in to the vast array of writers groups out there.

The first group I joined was – 10 Minute Writers – set up on Facebook by Katharine Grubb specifically for time-crunched writers, and which now has over 10,000 members. There are themed posting days for anything from promoting your blog to seeking support from a fellow member as a beta reader, editor, marketeer etc. Interesting articles are shared, warnings about sharp operators are posted and it’s a great source of interesting reading and support.

Still, I craved more. Something that made me really examine my writing, my process, my craft. I’d seen reference here and there to the Insecure Writers Support Group, but hesitated. You see, I’m a Life Coach, and providing support to others is what I already do a lot. My oh my, how did I mis-read that one! Having taken the plunge earlier this year, it has become clear that the support is flowing in the other direction. Why? Because I’m a novice, an early learner, and hugely lacking in experience in all things writerly. I do – of course – offer encouragement and congratulations, post positive comments and do what I can. But – for me – the very best bit about the group so far is the questions. Every month a question is set. It’s optional, so you can post on any other subject that could be useful or relevant. But those questions … they’ve had me thinking, pondering, learning about myself and my craft. It’s been exactly what I was after.

So I say to you – get thee out there and find yourself a writing group. These are just two which work for me. There are many, many others – in all flavours and types – there’ll surely be one to suit you, whatever type of writer you are. Go on, give it a go!


© Debra Carey, 2018

#secondthoughts: Nigeria

I lived in Nigeria for 6 years and it was only in the last decade that I’ve realised how little I know of the country, the people, of the civil war – despite moving there when it had been going for a year.  Unlike India, Nigeria wasn’t home. It was where I lived, when I wasn’t in boarding school that is.  It was a great place to be young – the weather was tropical and there were extensive opportunities for water sports.  But I was always aware of an underlying current of fear at home, so our lives revolved around our parents and their ex-patriot friends. It was never discussed this fear, never explained, but it was always present. As a result, I never sought to read about the country, despite a decided preference for books written by international authors.

Until recently that is. I’ve now read four – all outstanding – and I would urge you to do likewise. For these are huge talents and wonderful story-tellers, not just writers of Nigerian literature.

First up was “The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015 and I read it as part of my annual Man Booker read-alongs. The tale of this Igbo family’s five sons took me back to my first year in Lagos, when a group of us children used to run free, entirely without the supervision of adults. We didn’t get up to anything actively wrong, but we certainly got up to stuff our parents wouldn’t approve of, much like the boys did in “The Fishermen”. The local madman/seer in the book reminded me of the man with the chicken farm who used to rail at us for climbing into his enclosure – not to take chickens, but simply as a dare. The innocence in this behaviour – of both my group and the boys – was bittersweet, for it wasn’t long before we all had to grow up, to face puberty and real life. The superstitions and the seemingly overwhelming drive in males towards violence and vengeance whilst present in Nigeria, can also be found in many other examples of African literature.

I then persuaded my book club to read “Americanah” by Chimamande Ngozi Adichie. Whilst the majority of the story takes place in America,  it is filled with musings on the life of the black american – as seen from the perspective of a black african. And oh are the differences striking, especially to anyone who has experienced life in Africa. Whilst some in my book club found the focus on hair – and how it is dressed – repetitive and irrelevant, I found it the perfect metaphor for the huge gulf which exists between the two. When our heroine, Ifemelu, returns to Lagos, her joy at being home and her discomfort with the female role within Nigerian society all struck strong chords with me. That was the Lagos I remember seeing and hearing about – and although I was only 11 when I arrived, I’d reached my 16th birthday before we left.

“We should all be Feminists” then followed. I won’t dwell on this one long, as it’s a brief book and builds on the thread in “Americanah” of how the female gender is regarded in Nigerian society. Whilst clearly a subject that Adichie feels strongly about, it was all the more powerful as she did not tip into anger and bitterness, but rather demonstrated the love and affection she feels for her country and its people.

“Things Fall Apart” by the man – Chinua Achebe – came next and what a treat. A truly astounding novel. Beautiful, subtle, layered. Absolutely no lecturing, no hectoring, simply gorgeous story-telling. A story repeated throughout Africa, actually throughout the world wherever european imperialism has reached it’s tentacles. An important reminder that many of the world’s ills have been created by the drawing of boundaries to suit the european “owners” of overseas territories. How the fervence of missionaries was all too often backed by the military power of the european invaders. Whether you regard the tale of every day life depicted by Achebe as desirable or not, it was their life and we, the British, imposed our ways, our views, our religion and our ambitions upon them.

Lastly, “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Adichie again. Finally, the story of the civil war. I knew pathetically little and what I did know, came only from the British media, or from what I heard around the ex-pat community in Lagos. Some years ago, I met a man on a dating site. He was Nigerian who’d lived in England for many years because, as he told me “being Igbo, I had to leave after the war.” Knowing I’d lived in Lagos, he assumed I knew the significance of that statement. Feeling ashamed, I didn’t enlighten him of my ignorance. This book finally put that right. Here is the tale of the Biafran war told by Biafrans – the Igbo. I realise that there’s another side to this tale, as there always is, but the significance of foreign interference (or support – depending on your perspective) is unavoidable.

When I sat down to write this I realised – with some surprise – that all three of these  authors are of Igbo origin. But rather than ignore the fresh insight these books have provided me simply because they come from only one source, I’ve made a decision to seek out Nigerian authors of varying origins -such as Wole Soyinka & Helen Oyeyemi (both Yoruba), Lola Shoneyin (Remo), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Ogoni) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Hausa) – to add to my knowledge of Nigeria. To that end, I’m also following New Books Nigeria where I’m sure to find recommendations to challenge my toppling To-Read list with some great offerings. And, as always, I welcome your recommendations.

Sometime in the future, I plan to revisit this piece to express yet further #secondthoughts of this unique country where I was fortunate to have spent my teenage years.


© Debra Carey, 2018

#secondthoughts: Fools & Mortals

Debs and I met through a book club. It started with just three people, Brave New World, and a less than ideal venue…(we weren’t anticipating the dance class in the pub where we chose to meet). From the beginning we took it in turns to choose the book and we had a rule that the book needed to be one that none of us had read – the idea was that we wouldn’t have an emotional investment prior to the novel and wouldn’t be heartbroken when a much-loved favourite was ripped apart by others. When it came to my first turn to suggest a book, I couldn’t quite make up my mind, so I suggested a short list of three, and the others voted on this.  By the time that Debs joined the club a few years later, we had a pretty established format of a short list of 5-8 books, sometimes with a theme. Incidentally, the book we were discussing at Debs’ first session was an unusually long one for us – This Thing of Darkness – but one that we all loved, an infrequent situation for us!

Some authors are so prolific that it is possible to circumvent our rules, whilst still maintaining (some of) the spirit.  For example, I am a huge Pratchett fan, but had not read any of the Long Earth books when they turned up on one of Debs’ lists.  This month we read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell: we have a huge Cornwell fan in the group, but she’d not read this one.  In fact, Cornwell, with only one or two others, is an author that has come up twice, the first book of his we read being The Last Kingdom. I’ve not seen the TV version of the Last Kingdom so I can’t comment on how it compares.  I wasn’t a big fan of the book: it should have ticked a lot of boxes for me, but I think I just didn’t warm to the main character.

I was intrigued by the idea of Fools & Mortals, especially as the group had opted to read Bill Bryson’s brief biography of Shakespeare a few years ago.  (We’ve been going for more than 15 years now, so we’ve covered a lot of territory).  I’m out of practice in terms of writing reviews and so this is not really intended to be one.  Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that I quite like Sarina Langer’s approach to reviewing, which is not so much as to offer a subjective star rating, but to pick up on the things that she likes and the things that she thought could be improved. One of the things that I have found myself doing more frequently as increase the time spent writing is to ask the question “what would I do differently, if I were writing this  book?”.

Before we get to that, it is probably worth noting that (a) I did search for some reviews of the book, and the consensus seems to be that it is a 4* effort, and, (b) outside of Amazon (where, at the time of writing this post, there were 205 reviews) I’ve yet to find a compelling/reasoned negative review.

So what did I like?  I liked the opening a great deal: I thought it was intriguing and sucked me in completely. (The Cornwell fan in the group thought it rather obvious, and didn’t like it.  Ho hum.  As an aside, the best meetings we’ve had are around books that split opinion).  It was an excellent start and the epilogue echoes this to give the story a nice symmetry.  I quite like the main character, who is very much of the time.  He is not an anti-hero, but neither is he especially heroic – he is a self-confessed thief, but is a reliable narrator.  I learned something, and I think that the things that I learned were even true in some respects!

I have two major, linked gripes.  There is a plot, but it’s a bit thin, and as a consequence the book feels as though it has been padded:  there are quite large chunks of Shakespeare’s works in the book and there is a great deal of repetition.  Take ceruse, for example.  Ceruse was the name for the paste made from white lead and vinegar that was used to whiten the skin.  Unsurprisingly, given the book is set late in the Elizabethan period, ceruse is mentioned 11 times  –  perhaps the biggest surprise is that it is not mentioned more frequently.  Sometimes things were added to the paste – Cornwell describes the property mistress of the acting troupe trying out various dyes to give a green hue to Puck’s make-up at the first presentation of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The use of crushed pearls is also mentioned: in a theatrical setting it is used to make the skin sparkle slightly in the candlelight.  We were reminded of the crushed pearls almost every single time, and I got a bit fed up with this being rehashed.

I think the plot felt thin because the book couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be.  I was going to complain about the fact that there is very little ‘action’ (in this sense peril) until almost halfway through the book, but in thinking about it, this wasn’t necessarily the problem – the problem was that the action felt rather contrived.

What would I do differently?  I was going to say “Nothing!  I wouldn’t write this book!”, but that is perhaps being too flippant.  The book did give me an idea, which I will make a note of and I might even revisit, which would require a reasonable amount of research, but might be quite fun; it does need time to mature.  But if I were to take Fools and Mortals itself…hmmm….I think what could be quite fun is to reduce the book to novella length and then treat that as the first third of the book, the first Act.  There are two other acts that could work well (and a scholar could probably find several others).  Within my background reading, I found out that the Globe was built from the materials of another play house, called the Theatre, which was removed from its site following a dispute with the landlord, stored and then rebuilt.  Also, we tend to forget that Shakespeare lived not only in the Elizabethan era, but also in the Jacobean.  Managing this transition must have been fun…

So how about you?  What things have you learned about your writing by reading other people’s work?

 

 

 

#SecondThoughts – Dick Francis

I have every book he’s ever written – with the exception of his autobiography, the biography of Lester Piggott and those he co-wrote with his son in later years – although I have read them too. But his solo thrillers, they’re now all safe and snug – on my kindle.

My father had every copy in his bookcase, most of them in hardback, for they were the “go to” gift he wanted each year. As children, we insisted on a strict rotation for who would get him the cherished gift. Not just because they were his most desired gift, but because the giver got first dibs on reading the book after Dad had finished. For we all loved them.

I’ve oft wondered how they became my comfort reads. Me – who prefers literary fiction, who loves most Man Booker winners and a large number of those short-listed. It makes no sense at all.

My father told me recently that they were commended to him by his mother. My grandparents were keen race-goers, owners and breeders – of horses for flat racing, that is. Not here, but in India, where they lived for many years. They had a large stable and some of my earliest memories include going to evening stables, watching early morning training at the track, in particular when the young horses – bachchas – were taught how to use the starting gates. Bachcha is Hindi for young child by the way, and that is how my grandparents regarded their horses. We were brought up to recognise and love each of them too. When they retired and moved to Europe, they continued to follow racing and that brought Dick Francis to my grandmother’s notice … as a reader. She liked him. She gave my father his first one, my father liked him too. And the rest – as they say – is history.

So, who is Dick Francis? Ex-jockey, ex-Champion jockey in fact. Infamous for being aboard the Queen Mother’s horse Devon Loch who oh-so-nearly won the Grand National in 1956, except for an extraordinary and unexplained collapse just before the finish line. He went on to be a prolific writer of thrillers, often – but not exclusively – based in the horse world. His wife, Mary, was credited with being his researcher, although later gossip suggested that she did a great deal more than that. Her research was legendary with just two examples – it led her to obtain a private pilot’s licence and set up an air-taxi service as featured in “Rat Race”, and becoming an accomplished photographer with her own darkroom in order to fully research “Reflex”. With such a terrific support, Dick Francis was able to produce a book a year. Research started in late summer and by January, Francis would sit down to write, meeting his publisher’s May deadline. But Francis, himself, viewed them as a unit – he was known to family as Richard and she was Mary – to him, the pair of them made up the brand that was Dick Francis.

Dick Francis heroes were always a certain type of chap – regardless of their career – resiliant, reticent, stubbornly independent, decent and honourable. And they always got the girl. One or two of the books are quite dark but, mostly, they’re undisturbing fare and I’ve read them, re-read them, and re-read them.

My initial plan was to wait till I inherited all Dad’s hardbacks but, with the advent of kindles, the thought of having them always on hand was simply too appealing. So I’ve been buying them up, a few every now and again, for quite a while. I do hope that didn’t cause the Amazon price to fluctuate wildly for others.

Recent re-reads on my kindle have been as satisfying as always, proving that knowing what you’re going to get isn’t always a bad thing. Even when remembering everything before it happens. But in some, I don’t. I found one recently that I couldn’t recall, and the re-read told me that I’d probably not have been quite so drawn to read other offerings if I’d read it now “as new”.

The result of my musing is it’s the fact they form such a big part of my history that gives them their status. I’ve read them through pretty much every illness or injury, they’ve been my constant companions through some dark and lonely times. I still find their comfort read status strange – for they’re not great literature, they don’t weave complex and tangled webs as do some successful thrillers writers – but they are satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very decent reads, they’ve sold far too many copies and won too many awards to be otherwise. It’s just … unexpected, for I do truly love them.

Maybe it’s because if I was the girl, I’d like to bag me a Dick Francis hero …

 


© Debra Carey, 2017