#SecondThoughts: Describing characters – the shallow stuff

I’ve recently read a number of discussions on general blogs about the type of books people prefer to read. While the split between character-driven and plot-driven plays a part in any such discussion I noticed that, even within the preference for character-driven, there appears to be a quite significant split between those who enjoy lots of rich detail and those who do not – with a surprising number preferring the “just get on with it” option.

Assuming, for now, that I’d be writing in third person or using a narrator, let’s talk about the shallow stuff – describing how my characters look.

How much detail to provide?

I started by asking myself what were the benefits of giving the full head-to-toe description? The obvious answer being that the mental picture my readers form will be the one I’ve drawn. From there I moved to how I might provide that description? A character such as like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr Collins could prove a useful medium, being much inclined to dull discourses filled with mundane details. But as we don’t all have the sharp wit and deft touch of Miss Austen, there’s a need to remain mindful of the reader’s potential for being turned off by too long a descriptive passage. Clearly, this can be exacerbated where there’s a need to introduce a whole raft of characters at once as, if the same level of detailed description is applied to them all, I can see it proving overwhelming to the reader. And if I accept that many a reader is frustrated by being forced to wade through a lot of descriptive detail instead of getting on with the story, there’s a worry they may decide my book isn’t for them.

Perhaps then, a brief snapshot is the way to go? Enough to give my reader an idea of who everyone is, with more meat being put on the bones later, as and when it would be useful or relevant to the story or plot line.

Even though I struggle to see a scenario when this would be the case in a story I would write – I can see that if how the main character looks is vital to the story, opting for the head-to-toe descriptive option immediately they appear in the manuscript might be a good way forward (with other characters getting the brief snapshot treatment until otherwise necessary). One additional benefit of the single big brain dump when the character first appears, is I can then forget about the subject for the rest of the manuscript 😉

Returning to the concept that there’s a line to be drawn between enough and snooze in descriptive detail…. what other questions can I ask in order to ensure I stay the right side of that line?

When, why and where do you do it?

The first when question I had was whether to go for the full works immediately characters appear in the manuscript, or via drip-feed throughout. But, as I’ve already covered that under how above, I realised that further facts had to be established in order to decide my answer. Key to this is why the descriptive information is being provided -whether purely for background, or because it is relevant to the plotline. If the former, you can slip it in wherever it feels natural and comfortable but, if the latter, then the timing is key. To add one more question to this section, the where to do it could depend on whether it’s relevant to test my reader’s skills of observation. In most genres, I’d be inclined to leave it in plain sight, whereas with a crime/mystery/thriller tale, there could be a value (or simply just an inclination) to disguise it alongside a bright red herring or a shiny McGuffin or two.

What might you leave out…. and why?

Moving on from what distractions I might add, I’m wondering if what I might choose to leave out could be as relevant. As with everything, I guess the question remains, what would be my purpose?

My final question is what happens if I write in the first person? How does my reader get a description then? Do I remain the only character undescribed, or should I use some device to get the job done?

What do you advise?

© Debra Carey, 2022

The Documents in the Case: a #SecondThoughts book review

I’ve recently fallen in love with going to the library again.  The TBR pile is teetering, and most of the books that I’ve bought recently have been to do with aspects of writing, or of engineering, as I try to bring both my text book on materials characterisation and the shared novel with Debs to a successful conclusion (and start thinking about the next projects…).  But I can just about justify getting books out of the library, although I may be in danger of developing an L-TBR pile… The problem*, of course, with going to the library is that one way or another, you end up browsing.  Either it is deliberate as you attempt to take stock of what is new, or you are deliberately looking for something specific – which is not there – and you end up tripping over something else that grabs your attention.

*I use the term in a loose sense: it is not a problem per se, but there are a range of difficulties that can arise.

A little while ago, I wrote a review of ‘The Appeal’.  If you read the post, you’ll recall that I spotted it in the library and picked it up because I’d heard a lot about it.  The conceit that provides the structure to the story is that it is formed from a selection of emails that have been made available to two pupils of a barrister.  He wants them to review the documents and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the right person was arrested for a crime.  In my review, I likened it to the earlier book ‘The Documents in the Case’ by Dorothy L Sayers.  I also mentioned that whilst I’d heard of it, and whilst I’ve read several of her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, I’d not read this one.  Back in the library, looking for something else, I spotted the Documents in Case, and the Appeal still relatively fresh in my mind I thought that I would give this a go.

Sayers is perhaps best known for her detective fiction, although she did a lot more than this, and in her detective fiction, she is best known for Lord Peter Wimsey.  Her record in this regard might owe something to her status as a founder member of the Detection Club, an organisation that probably deserves a post of its own.  (The English Heritage Blue Plaque outside a former residence probably doesn’t help either, labelling her as a ‘detective novelist’).  Together with some of the brightest stars of the Golden Age of detective fiction, Sayers set out to refine the genre, and having done so to experiment with it.  For example, a group of members wrote a joint detective story, each taking responsibility for a chapter, and then passing it along to the next person, who must build the story in such a way as to incorporate all clues (either proving or debunking them).  Each contributor also wrote their own solution to the crime, which remained sealed until the mystery was complete; these solutions were included in the book, for the general reader.

What I hadn’t realised until now is that Documents is itself an example of a shared piece of writing, the co-author being Robert Eustace (a pseudonym for Dr Eustace Barton, who also wrote medic-legal fiction).  The epistolatory novel was not invented by Sayers, but this is certainly a piece of experimental writing on her part, a departure from the formula she was developing with Lord Peter.  It is interesting to note that she herself was unhappy with the final form of the book.  Coming to it as a Lord Peter fan, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected.  It lacks a great deal of the humour to be found in Lord Peter’s adventures.  Then, too, I felt that some of the material presented was something of a cheat: the documents collected are various, but several represent quite lengthy statements from some of the involved parties, solicited by the son of the deceased, who is attempting to determine if his father has been murdered.

On that basis, I don’t think I can offer a general recommendation to hurry out and get a copy.  Still, if you happen to be interested in detective fiction and are looking for something a bit different, or if you happen to stumble across it in a library whilst browsing for something else, it’s probably worth a couple of hours of your time.

Have you read Documents in the Case?  Would you recommend it – or not?  What’s the most unusual detective fiction you’ve read?

©David Jesson, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Avoid alliteration. Always.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish, is the kind of eccentric novel that you have to really work at – but it is incredibly clever. The first chapter is written using only words that begin with ‘a’. With every chapter, the next letter of the alphabet is added until the full alphabet is available; from that point though, letters are dropped until the last chapter returns to the same restriction as the first.

I’m not sure I’d want to have a go at writing something like that, but I think that most writers, at some point or another, enjoy having a go at something experimental. At the very least, there’s always something that is considered to be some kind of rule that you feel that you want to rebel against.

The thing about a lot of writing ‘rules’ is that people tend to focus on the sound bite and fail to look at the more nuanced case behind it. Eliminate adverbs, for example, is supposed to help you produce a cleaner form of writing. Using an adverb means that you should have used a stronger verb, they say. For myself, I think it’s a piece of advice that can help you in the editing phase, but you shouldn’t just take all the adverbs round the back and shoot them. Adverbs, if used sparingly, can be powerful, in a subtle kind of way. For example, ‘run’ is not a stronger verb to replace ‘walk quickly’. If you walk quickly, you’re walking with purpose; if you hurry, there’s possibly a certain nervous urgency to your action.

‘Avoid alliteration, always’ is a piece of advice that I’ve seen floating around for years. If Abish had followed this advice then there would be one less odd book for us to ponder over. Some might say that would be a good thing…

However, is the advice genuine? Or is it a joke? Alliteration is taught in schools, so why should we avoid it?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon, which explores the etymology of a range of words, with each explanation following on from the last, and the last entry linking back to the first. For someone interested in words, and how they are related, the book is fascinating. On the basis of my enjoyment of the book, I put in a request for some of Forsyth’s other work, and so have recently been able to make a start on ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. The first chapter, as you might have guessed, is on alliteration.

Alliteration is one of the tools of rhetoric – the black art and subtle science of persuading people to your point of view by talking to them. As with many of the ‘rules’ around writing, the answer is not to avoid it always, but rather to deploy it for effect in the right places. Alliteration is a way of generating a certain rhythm to a piece, to hammer home a point. But. But. And again, but. It is all to easy to over-egg the pudding. It might be thought that Alphabetical Africa is far too much of a good thing, but Abish deliberately goes too far, and in so doing makes a point. If he’d done any less, then it would have reduced the impact of what he was attempting. Instead, by going the whole hog, the alliteration is a statement.

However, alliteration allowed to run amok, an attempt at Art, is usually amazingly atrocious and should not be accepted. What had not occurred to me before though, assuming alliteration must always use the same letter in a given sentence, is that the rhetorical ruse can be used usefully with different letters.

Ahem. The point, as ever, is that you can have too much of a good thing. Don’t avoid alliteration, but do use it sparingly. Save it for special occasions. Like any tool, learn to use it safely, for the right purpose, and it can add sparkle to your scribbles.

© David Jesson, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Causes or Passions colouring your writing

In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to prevent bits of yourself leaching into your writing, so why wouldn’t your causes or passions colour it too? As I see it, you can choose to make them the driving force of your story, or to simply be one aspect of it, or to form a background against which it’s told.

Let me start with an example of shared passion which colours our co-authored WIP The November Deadline, that of gender equality. It might be obvious why this would be a cause close to my heart, but it’s David whose the passionate STEMinist – advocating for greater opportunities and a more welcoming environment for women in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he was drawn to the Dvergar for their matriarchal structure and skills in this area. The obvious bonus being it provided us with a methodology to showcase non-typical – for the era – female characters in our WIP. The contrast between our Dvergar characters and those who do met the historical norms of the era, allowed this disparity to be heightened without any need for drum banging in our writing.

Moving on then to focus on how I’ve seen this done beautifully in my reading.

The Wayfarer’s series from Becky Chambers (which I highly commend to you by the way) comprises a quartet of books – The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – and is an excellent series of space opera, where individuals from a wide range of planets are drawn together, to work, to love, and to live. It’s not an unrealistically utopian world for there are – of course – conflicts, some of the global type, but more of the inter-personal kind. What I’ve especially enjoyed is the depiction of variances in culture, belief systems, physical needs, attitudes to things such as parenting, and gender. In the final book of the quartet, we meet a mother and child from a people where it’s standard practice for children to be gender neutral until they reach a certain age, at which point they get to choose which gender path they will follow thereafter. With Trans issues being a rather combative subject at present, this gentle depiction of a different way of looking at gender identity was both interesting and enjoyable.

James Baldwin as both a black man and a gay man, has written passionately on both these subjects. His stories ring loud of authenticity, of pain and suffering, of wrongs being done to. But he does this by placing at the heart of his stories, characters – people – who you believe and are drawn to and care about, so that what they endure – and why – is drawn even more sharply into focus.

In a recent piece about queer literature, a blogger I follow highlighted a series they’d enjoyed reading, because there was a story and a plotline with gay characters, but that the sexual preference of the characters wasn’t the story. One of the commenters expressed his agreement, stating that this was a more accurate depiction of his own life experience, and therefore felt more authentic.

I’d like to close this musing with the following observations I ‘ve taken from an article I read in The Bookseller (do read the entire article as it’s both interesting and amusing). Penned by author and blogger Ellen Hawley, it explains that Hawley doesn’t limit herself to writing solely lesbian characters or storylines because “It’s a big world out there. I can’t write it all, but I won’t limit myself more than I have to.” But what most interested me was this statement: “I want my work to find its way into the lesbian community…. But it’s easier to reach into the community if I publish in the mainstream, than it is to reach the larger world by publishing within the community.” This aligns with my view that, if a cause is important to you, it needs to reach the widest community and not just those who agree with you – so using it to colour your story, rather than noisily banging away at a drum, could be the most effective method for an author to achieve that aim.

© Debra Carey, 2022 (for the blog & images)
© The Bookseller & Ellen Hawley (for the extracts)

How to survive #AprilA2Z: A #SecondThoughts list

We first published this in February ahead of 2020’s April A-Z Challenge. Unfortunately, pressures of our day-jobs mean we’re not going to be able to participate in 2022’s Challenge, but it seemed like a good time to re-blog the list below in case it proves helpful to anyone new to the Challenge. Those of you who’ve been doing this for years need no help from us, but you all have our best of wishes for a successful month. 

.      .      .     .     .    .

It’s easy to wish time away, but equally, Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.  April is nearly upon us (sort of), which for a sub-set of bloggers means it’s time for #AprilA2Z.  That being the case, we thought that some tips (earned the hard way) on how to survive the month of April might be helpful.

For those unfamiliar with the AprilA2Z, it’s probably worth taking a moment to explain what this blogging challenge is – and if you are a blogger yourself, perhaps I can tempt you into giving it a go.  If you are already familiar with the Challenge, then you might want to skip to the list, but for those who need some context, read on!

The AprilA2Z challenge was created in 2010 by Arlee Bird, who said on his blog:

Can you post every day except Sundays during this month?  And to up the bar, can you blog thematically from A to Z?

He, and a few others, set out to show that you could.  (You usually get Sundays off for good behaviour, but it depends on the calendar, some years April has 5 Sundays, so you have to work one of them.  Them’s the breaks).  The challenge took off, and now there are still people who haven’t learned better, joined by newcomers who think that this looks like a jolly idea… Some people write on the day, prompted only by the letter.  Others spend a lot of time in preparation, and/or following an additional theme, prompted by their interests.  Part of the idea is to go and check out what other people are doing as well, comment, and say hi.

Debs had a go at this in 2015 without a theme and another run at it in 2016 on book genres. This was also the year she  inveigled David into giving it go, which lead to 26 posts on “How to write a thesis”. Having survived the experience (just) he came back again in 2017 with “The Materials Science in Fiction and Mythology“, whilst Debs had a third go with Jazz (and some fiction it inspired her to write).

David then came up with the insane brilliant idea of writing a novella over the course of April 2018, and persuaded Debs that it would be a good writing experience to share the load.  (They’re now putting the finishing touches to a full length novel based on this extended piece of writing, and are starting to flesh out plans for further stories in the same setting).

The following list represents their combined top tips for surviving the A2Z, having fun, building your blog and/or writing practice, and meeting new bloggers.

But before you start, you need to make a decision – what’s your purpose in joining this Challenge? Do you want to get into a regular blogging habit, make new online friends, find interesting new reading material, showcase your business, practice writing short stories, have a place to showcase the research you’ve done for a book you’re writing, write a series of linked posts which you can publish, or, or, or …?


Decision made? Then dive in …

1. Write what you know: This is one of those pieces of writing advice which some people swear by and others try to burn to the ground, salting the earth where it stood afterwards.  An interpretation of ‘what you know’ is not ‘what you have lived’, though, but rather, ‘what you have knowledge of and understand’.  A lot of science fiction and fantasy would never get written if we waited for writers to get abducted by aliens, but a good grounding in physics can be essential to get your head around time-travel or Faster-Than-Light space craft.  Similarly, a better than passing knowledge of horse-riding or some-such can add a level of verisimilitude to a description of the cavalry of the Third Imperial Lances fighting a desperate rear-guard action on the steppes of Hzrun.  In a non fiction setting, there are some great blogs about crafts, and David’s colleague used the A2Z to write a series of posts on metallurgy that now form extra reading material for one of the degree modules he teaches.

2. Say hello: a fundamental tenet of A2Z is going and saying hello.  The thing is, with over a thousand people, sometimes nearly two thousand, having a go at this blogging thingy, it can be tricky to know what to look at.  It is well worthwhile though – Debs and David have both met great people through the A2Z, people with whom they are both still in contact.  The A2Z organisers try to make it as easy as possible to find out what a blog is about, so that is a helpful way of reducing the number to look at – time is precious and you don’t want to spend time looking at loads of blogs you aren’t ultimately interested in.  There are two approaches that you can take.  One is to pick a handful of blogs that you will look at and comment on everyday.  The other is to work your way through the list and look at a few new ones everyday, and follow up with a few later on.  The only problem with the latter method is the challengers who are running something that has a thread that runs through from the beginning.  (See point four, below).

3. Saying hello purposefully: If you say hello, people will try and check back if they can.  Also, people visiting this third party website will know that you are active, and might want to see what you’ve got to say.  Say hello purposefully, with a meaningful comment, and sign off with a link to your blog.  Not sure how?  Et voila!  The AtoZ people are very keen on electronic signatures that make it easy to find out where you are from, and ideally why.  I’ve found their tutorial very helpful, and I’ve used it several times.  This is mine from something called 23Things, which was a blog challenge I did for work.

[Your name or Twitter handle] from
<a href=”yourblogaddress”>Name of Your Blog</a>
You could add a mention to a specific project/event, with a link. For example, my signature for that event looks like this:
@BreakerOfThings from
<a href=”https://abackoftheenvelopecalculation.wordpress.com/”>A Back of the Envelope Calculation</a>
<a href=”https://abackoftheenvelopecalculation.wordpress.com/”>Calling by from #23ThingsSurrey</a>

4. How long should posts be? How long is a piece of string?  (Twice the length from the middle to the end).  The advice from A2Z HQ is not less than 100 words, to make it worth while for people coming to read what you’ve got to say.  That also works well if you’re going for a daily drabble challenge or some such.  An upper limit is probably about 1000 words, although experience suggests that even that can be a bit much.  There are two factors to consider – what do you have the time to write and what does your ready have the time to read?  Remember what we said about thousands of blogs in the challenge?  No one has the time to read several long form essays everyday.  That said, what is your USP?  What works for you?  What do you want to say?  If you are bashing out some random musings, and aren’t planning on major edits, then you can probably manage something slightly longer.  If you are aiming for something a bit more polished, then you probably want to keep the word count down a bit, if only to keep things manageable for you as a writer.

5. To theme or not to theme?  A theme might be obvious – it might spring fully formed from the reason that you blog in the first place.  Or it might be an opportunity to try out something new.  But you don’t have to blog  to a theme.  The queen of free association is probably Isa-Lee Wolf.  She does this a lot throughout the year anyway, but somehow always manages to up the ante for A2Z, without really doing anything different.  For us though, independently we’ve both found that a theme makes a lot of sense and helps to provide some focus.  It also makes it that much easier to write blog posts in advance, meaning that you have that much more time for checking out other people’s blogs during the challenge.

6. Being found & finding your fellow A2Z participants
6.1 You can sign up to take part on the Blogging from A to Z website, where you can also grab a selection of images to post onto your site, as well as purchasing items of merchandise. In earlier years they’ve provided either a list or a spreadsheet linking to participants; hopefully this practice will continue.
6.2 If you use Facebook, there’s a Blogging from A to Z Challenge page which you can like and follow. A daily post is provided for each letter of the alphabet where participants can post a link to their daily blog and find others participants.
6.3 Finally, there’s a Twitter account which you can follow, and where you can link your daily posts and read other news. But most people use a hashtag with #AtoZChallenge and #A2ZChallenge being two of the most popular.
6.4 One more random option (which is a favourite of Debs) is when visiting other participants to leave your own comment, click on the names of others leaving comments. The bonus in this method is that when you’ve found a site you like, other commentators could well be on the same wavelength as you are.

7. Write your posts each day, or in advance?  Is your time your own? Are you confident in being able to set aside the time every day throughout April to prepare and produce a post? Is part of your purpose for taking part in the Challenge to build a daily blogging or writing habit? Is the idea of a theme an anathema to you and would you prefer to go freestyle, writing on a subject that inspires you each day? If the answer to these questions is Yes – then you’ll have a lot of fun sitting down on April the 1st to pen your first post, and to repeat that each day until April 30th.
But for the time crunched among you, or for those wanting to use the Challenge to produce a series of more structured posts, or posts which could build into a body of work, advance planning and preparation is vital. The truly organized have all their posts written before April begins, many have them set up to auto-post, so their only action is to respond to comments and visit other participants to leave their own comments. But even having a plan and some advance posts in hand can dramatically reduce the requirement for burning the midnight oil.

And that’s all Folks!

Seriously though, remember that while it’s a Challenge, it’s meant to be enjoyable. There can be a fair degree of stress involved in making it through to the end, especially when life gets in the way – they don’t issue those “I Survived …” badges for nothing. Really, this isn’t about winning or losing – it’s about challenging yourself … but only so long as it’s fun.

© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020 & 2022

#SecondThoughts: The character I most relate to

In our co-written work November Deadline, there’s quite the cast of characters, so a wide choice for my consideration. While I’ve a huge amount of affection for them all, I have to admit having a soft spot for Tinkerbell – something which seemed to be shared by those who read our tale during April’s A-Z challenge back in 2018.

There’s a couple of areas where I particularly relate to Tink. He’s a big fan of pubs, with a liking not just for the beer and the hearty fare on offer, but most especially for the convivial company and conversation. Some of my happiest times were spent in pubs, enjoying laughter and chat with friends and acquaintances both, exchanging banter over favoured sporting teams. And that’s another thing we share, a love of the fine game of rugby.

But then there’s the rest. An academic, Tink is entirely at home in the hallowed halls of Oxford University and his beloved Bodlian Library; a master planner and tactician, a warrior of old. And that’s before we consider the magic….

While I would have loved to share the academic experience with Tink – I haven’t. It’s a world I gaze upon from the outside with wistfulness. I’m an excellent organizer, but I could never plan a skirmish, let alone a battle or a war. So, it’s not Tink I most relate to – even though I’d like to.

I briefly consider Mike – Lady Michaela – for I empathised in a most heartfelt manner with her desire to live unshackled by the constraints and expectations of her family.

But in truth, that was all we had in common – for Mike’s assured demeanour, coming as it does from being a member of the landed gentry, is not something I recognise in myself. Looking at her with my NLP hat on, it’s a behaviour I’d be tempted to model. So, not Mike either – even though there’s aspects I’d clearly like to.

Though she was initially planned to be somewhat of a throwaway character, Juliet clung on with determination to become a key part of the cast. And I find it is with Juliet where I feel the greatest sense of affinity.

Juliet is a bit of an oddity when first we meet her. She’s the only female apprentice at Lady Michaela’s Manufactorium, doubtless unhappy at standing out yet further by being notoriously accident prone. Initially believed to be clumsiness, it later transpires that it’s her extremely volatile emotions bubbling over which are the problem.

Although Juliet’s physical appearance is that of a women in her late teens/early twenties, there’s aspects of typically teenage years in her behaviour. I have a visceral recall of that flip-flop between apparent maturity and overwhelming emotion, and the struggle to control which would manifest when. While not especially accident prone myself, I didn’t have the physical grace of female members of my family, despite being lighter and leaner. I remember feeling aggrieved at having gained such a reputation for something which was entirely outside of my control – I’m not entirely sure how much I sense the same in Juliet and how much I’m projecting.

Jack brings Juliet to Michaela’s Manufactorium, not only to give Juliet somewhere safe to live and learn a trade, but to provide her with someone to look up to, someone to learn from -a role model who could help her to formulate the life she might want to lead. While Juliet is an orphan and I am not, I strongly felt that absence of an that type of role model growing up. I knew the future life expected of me (one of marriage and babies) was not for me, but I knew no-one who demonstrated any recognisable alternatives nor – and as important – the path to finding one.

As someone born and brought up in the third world, I’ve always felt an outsider in my “home” country of the UK. And yet I was an outsider in the places where I felt at home. I have now reconciled myself to those feelings and while they remain, they don’t have the alienating power they once did. That sense of not belonging is strong in Juliet – the reason for which is mentioned briefly in November Deadline, but will be developed in later books.

With hindsight, I’m not sure which – if any – of these aspects were my contributions to the creation of Juliet. So, it wasn’t that I put myself into the story, as is commonly the way with writers. Rather that I recognise aspects of myself in her in the same way that I recognise those aspects of myself in the characters of books where I am simply the reader.

© Debra Carey, 2022

The Appeal: A #secondthoughts book review

The Archers – ‘an everyday tale of country folk’ – first hit the radio waves on the 1st of January, 1951 (displacing Dick Barton – don’t get me started…about the only thing the two shows have in common is iconic theme tunes). In part, the show was developed as a way of getting Government information on best practice in farming out to the nation, but it was also important that the programme be entertaining. In both ambitions the show has been successful, as evidenced by the fact that the Archers is still going 60 years later, having racked up more than 19,500 episodes. The Archers is set in farming country: although not everyone in the show is a farmer, many of the characters are, and many more are dependent on the farms that surround the fictional village of Ambridge.

Why do I mention this? Well, I’ve just been reading ‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett, and the community at the heart of the book is reminiscent of the Archers. Here though, the focus is an amateur dramatics group although, as with the Archers, there is a distinct social hierarchy. The founders of the Fairway Players are labelled as the alpha family and social importance is defined by closeness to this family. They are very much in control of the group, and whilst there are open rehearsals for every play (essentially selected by the founders), it is a foregone conclusion that the matriarch of the alpha family will be the leading lady.

The cover states that there is one murder and 15 suspects, and invites the reader to work out whodunit. So far so good. The conceit here is that a QC* has instructed two of his pupils** to review documentation in preparation for an appeal on behalf of his client. He’s convinced his client is innocent (naturally), but wants fresh eyes to see if they can see what he can, or whether he’s seeing things that he wants to… Hence, the book unfolds as a series of recovered emails and text messages from some, but not all, of the people at the heart of the events. It is punctuated by WhatsApp conversations between the two pupils, and later on the QC joins in too. (This is played for comic effect with the obviously otherwise very capable QC struggling with the tech, and frequently having to dictate to his secretary what he wants to message to his pupils).

*For those unfamiliar with the British legal system, a QC = Queen’s Council, a senior lawyer, with certain privileges in a Court of Law. That’s the short version, anyway.

**Lawyer speak for a person who is in the last stage of qualifying to become a barrister.

This, then, in many ways, is an update on the classic Dorothy L. Sayers book ‘The Documents in the case’ – although this is not one that I’ve read, so I can’t draw any further comparisons, at the moment.

The Appeal has had some good PR and I freely admit that I picked it up based on the advertising – and the strap-line; the whole ‘story told through emails’ thing passed me by though.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their mysteries. Is it perfect? No. It’s a brilliant subversion of the form, but there are some niggles. The emails provided are from a relatively small pool of the characters – by no means are the full 15 suspects represented. That’s not necessarily a problem but there are some notable absences, and my feeling is this is simply to hide some of the characters from our view. It’s been suggested that Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction have become outdated; this may to some extent be true, even whilst these rules underpin pretty much all of the Golden Age Detective books. Still, the fundamental ethos here is playing fair with the reader, and I’m not sure that is really the case here – I could make some good guesses about the events, as they unfolded, but I felt that there was some information missing, not just that I’d been diverted away from what I needed to know.

There are very few sympathetic characters in the book, and arguably even the victim is not entirely likeable, although we don’t really get a good feel for them. When it came to the culprits, I would have been happy enough for most of the cast to go to jail…

In summary, if you’re looking for a sweet little old lady solving a crime in a country house, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to something that’s a bit different, then this is definitely the book for you. The detective(s) are not the focus here, but rather a community of, perhaps not quite everyday country folk, but you might recognise some of your neighbours…and the dark underbelly is very much brought out into the light…

© 2022, David Jesson

#SecondThoughts: How to dress your characters

I’m worried that title gives you the wrong idea – I’m really not sitting down with paper cut-outs of my characters and playing dress up. Really, I’m not. Nor am I someone who’s overly focussed on clothes or fashion. Yet I find myself noting details of what people are wearing as I do my people watching.

And that got me to thinking…. presuming you describe your characters, does that include what they’re wearing?

When I’m noting clothing details, it’s about getting a picture of who the person might be. Are the clothes they’re wearing good quality or fast fashion? If branded, are they stylish or trendy? If casually dressed, is it business casual or just fell out of bed casual? Are they brazenly doing the walk of shame in last night’s party gear in the local coffee shop? And what could any of those choices tell me about who they are?

Let’s take me as an example. If a writer were to be observing me, what might they note? Well, that I have a clear preference for wearing black – I even wear it for weddings. What might that say about me? That I like to be able to throw on any item from my wardrobe and not worry about whether they match one another? That I believe in a capsule wardrobe and nothing is more capsule than black? That I wear black because I believe it’s slimming? That I wear black because it suits my colouring? That I’m a goth at heart? Clearly, the fact that I always wear black doesn’t tell the story by itself, but a writer could use that fact, along with other descriptive details, to create a picture. BTW, I wear black for all the reasons above, except I’m no goth 😉

What a person chooses to wear can tell us a tale. When I worked in advertising, a male colleague bemoaned the fact that he was expected to wear a suit, and that it was easier and cheaper for women in the same role to shop for a suitable wardrobe, as they could wear “whatever they liked”. While it is true that as an entry point into a working wardrobe, a suit can prove to be an expensive option, those women who also selected the suit option for their working wardrobe did so because they’d done the numbers and worked out they’d spend less on their working wardrobe in the long run. So, the choice could be a pragmatic one, but it could also be giving a message about who you are – or who you want to be seen as.

That advertising colleague chose to wear the traditional suit, shirt and tie combination. He was ambitious, but he also wanted to fit in and be accepted rather than rock the boat. Contrast that with a sales colleague who, while working in the hugely traditional print business, chose to wear beautifully cut black suits, occasionally with a shirt and tie, but more usually with a round-neck T-shirt, a polo neck, or a shirt with a Nehru collar. He had an Italian name and was half German, so maximising that fact via his clothing choices meant he remained instantly memorable – and it worked to his advantage.

How you chose to “dress” your characters can tell your readers something about your character’s personality, how they perceive themselves, even how they seek to portray themselves. It’s a useful tool and one you can have fun with – especially when you want to play against type.

Do you use clothing as a shorthand for telling your reader about your characters? What tips do you have for doing it effectively?

© Debra Carey, 2022

Utopia Avenue: a #SecondThoughts book review

If asked to name my favourite authors, David Mitchell’s name would appear – the author, I always stress, not the comedian. As someone whose preference is for literary fiction, Mitchell is a sound call having had 5 novels Booker Prize nominated – 3 longlisted and 2 shortlisted. But their subject matter is quite the mix, for you’ll find out & out fantasy, along with good old fashioned story telling, on top of simply beautiful writing.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I was introduced to Mitchell via Cloud Atlas. A random paperback tucked in with a parental birthday gift of money, the choice of book based on a sibling’s suggestion, Cloud Atlas isn’t something either the parent or any of the siblings would read – but it’s an utterly me sort of book, and I loved it. I went back to his earlier offerings of Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream, then bought (in hardback no less) his semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks and Slade House were each purchased and read upon release. So, when he released his latest novel Utopia Avenue back in the dark pandemic days of 2020, you’d have expected me to jump at it. But…. I read the blurb, and it just didn’t grab me. I have to acknowledge there is this problem for David Mitchell – a nice one to have, but a problem nevertheless – that his greatest work Cloud Atlas was so mind-bogglingly clever, that everything else can be seen to pale by comparison (a problem ably expressed by this Guardian reviewer‘s take on the new novel).

It’s now the final month of 2021 and I’ve finally purchased and read Utopia Avenue. Is is great? No, but it is good, possibly even very good. I absolutely raced through it, thoroughly enjoying the multiple point-of-view tale of the life and death of a new band during 1967 & 1968. I really liked the structure – the way each chapter was presented as a series of tracks, formed into three sections, each being one of their 3 albums. I don’t especially enjoy it when multiple POVs cover the same bit of the story, unless there is genuinely something new to learn from each viewpoint, but I do really like to hear the voices of the multiple protagonists – even the secondary ones – as is done here, and done well.

I was born in the late fifties and grew up in the third world, so my experience of that seminal time was very different. Viewing the centre of London through this book as a place where (relatively) ordinary people lived, was most enjoyable. It’s a part of London I know well – if from a later time – so joining each of the characters are they move from coffee shop or cafes, past book shops, from flats, to pubs and clubs, and to Soho offices, brought the area back to life.

Were there too many famous name-checks? Maybe. I feel fewer would’ve been better, but the music scene was probably like that back then. Some of the real life characters could’ve simply been described rather than name-checked, which could’ve made it a fun guessing game. For example, was it necessary to have name-checked David Bowie, when the description of  “an elegant odd-eyed gentleman in a trenchcoat” was enough for even me to identify him?

I wondered if – and how – Mitchell would link this novel to others he’s written, something he’s known for…. even though it was a while before I caught on to this practice 😉 Some links are subtle such as the band’s Canadian manager who appears briefly in The Bone Clocks, and the lead guitarist, Jesper, being descended from the titular character of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But the biggest overlap is when we re-visit the world of The Bone Clocks during the portion when Jesper’s psychosis causes a breakdown.

I often have problems with endings – but felt this was a good one, for a crash ‘n burn would’ve been too much of a cliché. So, while no Cloud Atlas, this was a most enjoyable read. Read it without heightened expectations, and I believe you could think so too.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#SecondThoughts: What makes a Writing Space?

Although I’ve occasionally written something longhand in a notebook, if I write anything at all when I’m away from my desk, it tends to be notes – an aide memoir about a thought which popped unexpectedly into my head, or an item to be researched at a later date. I’ve also trained myself to think that it’s writing time when I’m sat at my desk.

That said, there’s very little about my desk that says “a writer works here”. My desk is very much a multi-purpose space – somewhere I do my day job providing support at an IT company, where I sit while doing my second job providing life coaching to my clients via Zoom, where I do all my personal and home admin. It’s also where I process my photographs, where I write my blogs (one life coaching, one personal, and this one), and it’s where I write fiction.

One wall of my office is lined with bookcases, positively groaning with books and yes, there’s a fair few on the craft of writing and publishing (perhaps one day I should review them). But there are also books on a variety of other topics (hence the groaning shelves). My office also stores the large pool of camera equipment I share with my partner.

But there are writerly aspects…

I’ve a simply beautiful antique writing slope which my partner bought me for Christmas a few years ago, which I really want to set up somewhere it can both be displayed and used for it’s original purpose. It currently sits on some shelving next to my desk and, whenever I see it, it makes me smile. I really rather like the idea of getting a quill or some form of dipping pen for it’s inkwell. One day…

Despite the fact that I now write my stories straight to screen, I have two large pots of pens & pencils – multiple colourful ballpoints and felt-tips pens, as well as many an ink pen. To date, I’ve three shades of ink – black, magenta and jade green. I love them all and feel sure I’ll be adding more, for they are gorgeous and I really enjoy the feel of writing with ink onto quality paper – it has a way of slowing down my thoughts, and that causes quite unexpected things to appear.

That leads nicely onto the dangerously swaying piles of notebooks on my desk – one pile of small (A5) and one of large (A4). There’s a mix of soft covers and hardbacks, ring binders and fully bound, all in multiple colours and patterns of cover. I intended to implement a system for their use, but have failed miserably to date. Instead, I regularly flip through them, either looking for something specific, or just to check what I may have forgotten (quite a lot as it turns out).

One item which really gives me the “I’m a writer” feels is the old black Anglepoise lamp sitting on the right-hand corner of my desk. It sheds a lovely warm pool of light across my desk, and creates a cosy atmosphere which feels more writerly than business-like. To add to the cosy atmosphere, when its time to do some writing, I put on one of my father’s old wool cardigans – oversized, rolled up at the wrists, and with holes which need darning. I’ve no idea if famous authors wore such things, but I feel more writerly when wearing one.

There’s also always a mug of tea – either Chai or Earl Grey – for tea is my fuel. In the background are the latest drawings from my grandchildren, and I try to keep space in the corner for a small sprig or two of something in a little glass vase from my daughter.

To the side of my desk, I have an inspiration board leaning against the wall. It’s filled with a selection of images and words cut out from magazines, together with a sprinkling of gold stars (someone sent me them and they seemed just the thing to add). It’s there to remind me of the life I’m working towards… one in which a writing shed plays a starring role.

What’s in your Writing Space? If you don’t have a dedicated space, what might make somewhere your ideal Writing Space?