Does crime thrill you? Why?

I recently watched the Imagine documentary on Ian Rankin on BBC iPlayer.  I’ll disclose right away, I don’t read thrillers or crime fiction as a matter of course. I worked my way through Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle and Fleming in my early teens, I read some Le Carre and some Len Deighton in my late teens but that’s about it. I also abandoned watching crime/thriller on TV some years ago. I enjoyed Frost but that was the last one I watched. I never really got into Morse.  And beyond that I’m almost completely ignorant of the genre.  So my questions here are genuine. I’m not slating the genre, but we only have so many hours in the day and I make conscious choices of what I like to read/watch of which crime and thrillers  no longer feature. I live a happy and quite fulfilled life (I believe) without it.  I like to read and write about what people get up to in their ‘ordinary’ lives, the domestic ones without all the jeopardy, crime and murder.  Where people are victims of emotional imbalance and where ‘who we are’  in everyday life is what matters, not when we are victims, perpetrators or observers of crime or murder. (Though I know that I’m veering towards crime fiction and ignoring a lot of pure ‘thriller’ aspects here. But as I said, it’s not my ‘thing.’) I’m here to learn!

What interested me in Rankin’s documentary was his writing method. What appalled me was his method of working. It seemed like slavery to me. I think there may be two (at least) kinds of writers. There are those who are raring to go early in the morning and you can’t keep them away from the computer keyboard without making them unhappy. Those for whom, as a fellow novelist Catherine Czerkawska says,everything apart from writing is ‘a distraction.’ And then there are those who need a big cup of coffee, a read of the newspapers and a dash of guilt to get them shoehorned into work mode each day. They seem to look for any and every displacement activity to avoid writing. I’d hate to be one of the latter.  It seems to me that for them writing is a punishment (or a means to an end – money and fame) whereas to me writing is a joy and even at its most boring times, creatively fulfilling. Being creative on a daily basis is very important to me. Whether it makes me money or not.

There are also (at least) two ways that writers seen to write. One is to plan and structure before (and during) writing and work to a framework. Research first then writing. I’m of this group. I probably actively ‘think’ for some years then ‘plan’ for a good year (while doing other things of course) and by the time I start to write I ‘know’ my characters and story well. I don’t even allow myself to write a story till I’m so champing at the bit that I can’t do anything else except work on it! The writing stage then becomes both a release and a relief and a pleasure.  Rankin is of the other group. He loosely collects things in a file where he leaves them until he ‘has to’ find his once a year BIG IDEA for his one novel a year, then he roots through this pile. He then pays attention to what’s going on around him, looking for what is ‘out there’ that he can mine, or connect with. He goes to a funeral when he should have started his first draft and that gives him the idea to start the novel writing about a funeral. It’s a bit haphazard for my liking.

When he actually gets down to writing he seems to flounder a lot of the way. He doesn’t often know what’s happening next. (Or so he says. I’m never sure about the veracity of this approach, I wonder if it’s like school where people all say ‘I never revise’ because it makes them look a) cool and b) clever.)  But assuming he’s telling the truth, I find this vaguely unsettling. One of the reasons I stopped reading/watching crime/thrillers was that I got pissed off when I discovered that however hard I was looking for ‘clues’ in the text I probably wouldn’t get them because the writer didn’t necessarily know themselves till the end. It seemed pointless to me to be looking for something I couldn’t find.  Maybe I’m looking for the wrong thing though.  This was one insight I got from the documentary.  It’s not just about trying to make sense of the ‘murder’ (or crime or whatever) it’s an insight into a wider world. Rankin pointed out that for him writing  is a way of him making sense of the world around him. His writing works out a problem and he ‘gives’ this problem to a familiar character who is the reader’s conduit to the issues.  I’d never thought of it this way. It’s certainly not how I write, but it does explain why one would write series fiction.  However, having the same old familiar character being the same old mouthpiece for life’s thorny issues just seems too limiting and frankly too boring for me as a writer.  It also led me to wonder whether Rebus was just a channel for things Rankin might like to say but wouldn’t like or dare to say in his own voice.  Through Rebus he explores what he thinks about the world and then he lets Rebus tell us, allowing him to be more controversial than Rankin would feel comfortable being. I may be wrong, that’s just my opinion based on what I saw.

Generally, throughout the programme most of Rankin’s life as a writer turned me right off (not him, just writing!) I wouldn’t write if it was like this. I wouldn’t want to. It’s like slavery. Or punishment.  Whereas he has ONE big idea a year, I fight off ‘good’ ideas for stories on a weekly basis (well, okay maybe a monthly basis now I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years). I’m constantly thinking about many characters, many plots, many issues and how to bring them all together. For me writing is, and has always been, primarily about being creative. About trying to explore the world in a range of different ways but not always thinking that my perspective has any value or primacy.  It seems to me that I write to find out about other people and the world and Rankin writes to find out about himself and the world. (Again, opinion only, not criticism.)

And I wonder if that’s a male/female thing. That a man sees his own perspective as the ‘most important’ and dominant whereas a woman is more flexible. She can put herself in other people’s shoes more easily (a sort of emotional multi-tasking if you will) and so her fiction is essentially different. I’ve never thought of this before and I’m not sure I believe it, but I’m looking for discussion on this issue so I thought I should throw out something contentious! I know ‘virtually’ both male and female crime/thriller writers and I’m interested to hear their views.

So, my question for discussion is: why do we write and why do we read crime/thriller fiction.

(The subsidiary question – how do we write – is one I’m going to tackle in a blog post for Authors Electric on 4th December  – I’m planning ahead!)

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Child Abuse… why?

This discussion links with the Indie eBook special review available HERE 

Feel free to join the discussion/comments on this site, that site or both sites!

Confronted with stories such as Girls and Boys come out to Play and The Price of Fame, (both published in the wake of the Jimmy Savile ‘scandal’ by Kirsty Eccles) I imagine people in their droves responding: I don’t want to read about child abuse. Wouldn’t it just be rubbernecking? Wouldn’t it suggest I have an unnatural interest in the subject?

I’m sure there are a hundred reasons why people don’t want to read stories about child abuse. I myself find the concept of ‘misery memoir’ quite distasteful BUT equally, when ‘scandals’ such as the Jimmy Savile one come out I begin to think that there is so much sex abuse going on all over the place that we need to bring it out of the closet and TALK about it. And one way of doing this is to WRITE about it and one way of writing about it is to write it as FICTION.

Why choose fiction? Perhaps  the story is too painful for the writer to admit? It may be a ‘survivor’ story.  A person trying to make sense out of their personal experience but without the courage to stand up and bare all.  This in itself may have a therapeutic value for the writer who has not  been ‘believed’ in ‘real’ life.  But fiction has to do something for the reader too doesn’t it?

So let’s remember, writers have skills and can use these skills in a number of ways.  For me, one strength of fiction is that it can  take the personal and universalise it. It can show themes and patterns and structures and in doing so create a narrative which is ‘fiction’ but in fact represents more than ‘one experience’ and in doing so asks questions or shows aspects of a society as a whole. Because those ‘personal’ stories can get lost as ONE PERSON’S experience. Fiction can provide a way for us to appreciate that a character may represent a whole bunch of people. That’s what the Price of Fame is about – showing people that there are many, many victims of child sex abuse, not just by one celebrity, not just by many celebrities, but by a whole range of people who are ‘in power’ however that ‘power’ is defined. It doesn’t have to be defined by conventional ‘celebrity’ it is insidious and pervasive within the ordinary domestic experience of many many people.  And that’s something that is unpleasant to think about. Unpleasant to read.  But isn’t it time we all grew up a bit and took a close look at some of the unpleasant things we usually try to avoid.

Of course you wouldn’t read child abuse fiction for escapism. This doesn’t mean you are reading it for titillation. But I suggest the reason to read either fiction or fact about child sex abuse is either that you need to learn about it because you HAVEN’T been abused and so don’t really understand the complexity of the emotions which are involved and the life changing damaging consequences of such abuse, or because you HAVE been abused and you want some validation or a feeling that you are not alone and most importantly not to BLAME for the abuse you suffered.

You don’t have to dig very far to find fiction which deals with child sex abuse. We do need to read about it. We need to think about it. We need to talk about it and we need to work out how to DO something about it!

I asked a number of writers who have reviewed work on IEBR to give some insight into why Child Abuse featured in their work.  For their responses and the WHOLE ARTICLE click HERE after 10am

Please note that Kirsty Eccles short story GIRLS AND BOYS COME OUT TO PLAY and the longer story THE PRICE OF FAME are both available FREE today.  (Girls and Boys is free in perpetuity, but The Price of Fame is on a special free offer for 7th November)

The Price of Fame is available for Kindle at Amazon UK and Amazon US

Girls and Boys Come out to Play is available on McStorytellers site. 

Halloween but why…?

When I was young the main feature of this time of year was called ‘guising’ and was pretty embarrassing. You had to go round people’s houses and ‘do a party piece’ for them and in return get some sweets. I never wanted sweets that much! I couldn’t do more than tell the lamest joke. You’d never have got me singing in public (I faced enough family ridicule when I tried to sing in private) and there didn’t seem much else a five year old could do to entertain the neighbours.  Especially not when dressed up in some lame costume.

The first film I saw (stick with me here, this will all come together) was The Wizard of Oz and it terrified me. I had nightmares about the green faced witch for months. I convinced myself that if I lay still, on my back, in my bed I’d be safe. I misinterpreted the line ‘and the dreams you dare to dream really do come true’  to mean that if I dreamed about the witch she would come true.  This was my first introduction into a fear of witches, ghosts and the supernatural.

But for me, that time of year was more about building a ‘guy’ and going round asking for a penny for it (easier than guising!) and then burning it on a bonfire in which we baked potatoes (so it wasn’t all bad!).  We at least knew who Guy Fawkes was (and I always felt kind of sorry for him, so quickly gave up on the effigy building)  And ‘Fireworks’ night was not without its own fears.   I remember going to a family friends fireworks party held in their garden and the dad wasn’t that careful and a spark got into the box of fireworks and I remember being chased down the garden into the house by a load of horizontal rockets.  It may not have been the same day (childhood does tend to merge such memories) but the daughter of the house (as I remember, on that day) ran through the glass fronted door and was carted off to hospital amidst much blood and had a lot of skin grafting on arms and legs.

Okay. Maybe now you can see why I’m a bit nervous of Halloween and fireworks and this time of year in general. Or maybe this is exactly the kind of tale you enjoy at this time of year?

I was not much older when things happened that meant that my life changed irrevocably and I subsequently grew up in circumstances which today would be called ‘domestic abuse’ but for me were just years of constant fear interspersed with random acts of extreme violence (often around ‘events’ such as Christmas and, yes, Halloween). So I became somewhat ‘risk averse’ and disinclined to engage with anything that promoted fear – I had enough fear in real life  not to go seek it out in fiction.

Which brings me to my real point. I’m wondering what it is that makes people so enamoured of the whole ghosty, Halloweeny thing?  It’s a genuine question. I’m not disparaging it, I just cannot ‘get’ it. I accept this is because of my own unique and strange ‘personal’ life experience.  But I want to know.

I have always worked on the premise that people like ‘horror’ stories because they come to them from a ‘place of safety.’ That they don’t believe these awful things could actually happen, or not to them.  Is it just a bit of fun?  I find it hard to understand how one can engage with the notion of zombies or ghosts or whatever as a rational adult other than as some form of escapism, and I cannot understand why one would ever want to ‘escape’ into fear.  But I’d really like to know. Because I can never find out for myself.  I’m still too scared of the whole thing. It took me into my 40’s to find a ‘place of safety’ in my life and I’m not inclined to leave it.  I have nothing I want to escape from any more.

When in my late teens I tried to ‘man up’ and engage with the genre, I watched a Stephen King horror film -‘Carrie’ and it left me a complete gibbering wreck.  I still get completely freaked if anyone stands around behind me. I tried again. I read my way through the Gothic Horror Novels of the 18th and 19th century. Actually I liked them. I liked Frankenstein and Dracula in their original forms because they didn’t seem about ‘horror’ to me but about society and sexual repression.  The ‘fear’ factor wasn’t there for me. I didn’t think any of this would happen ‘to me.’  But point me in the direction of anything resembling intense psychological fear and/or horror and I just can’t handle it. So I’ll never learn what it is and why it is that people write and read these genres unless I ask people to tell me why they read/write the things.  And I do, really, want to know.

So if you are into zombies, ghosts, horror, or psychological thriller and can explain to me why films and books of these genres are so compelling to folks, please leave a comment and start a debate.

And if anyone can explain why it is that ‘guising’ has turned into Trick or Treat and the entire world seems to become swathed in cheap plastic (and other materials) crap for a month when we are in a time of economic recession and why we choose to ‘entertain’ ourselves by parties where ‘fear’ is the key, I’d be glad to hear about that too!  Me, I’ll be staying indoors until long after the last firework has sped its way vertically or horizontally into space.

I just can’t help but thinking that there must be plenty of other people (and not just animals) for whom the setting off of explosives (something we try to avoid all the rest of the year except in a war situation) and general ‘fear’ factor is quite difficult to take. And yet, all around me, everyone seems to be ‘getting into the spirit’ of Halloween and as usual, I am in danger of being a party pooper.  I hope at least you’ll understand where I’m coming from.  But do please, give me your best reasons why it is that this is such a GOOD and POPULAR thing.  It will serve as an education for me, and maybe even as therapy.

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