FROM CLAY TABLETS TO ANDROID SCREEN

old bookThere’s a sense of familiarity and reassurance in much-read copies of books by favourite authors.  It’s comforting to turn a page and remember that this is the part where you spilled soup on the name of the murderer because last time you read it you had flu and were under a blanket on the sofa.  Or to realise you’re coming up to the part where you dropped the book in the bath, and that the renunciation scene between the lovers is permanently scented with Imperial Leather.  Even better, is embarking on the chapter detailing the villain’s midnight prowl through the dark old house, where the pages are spattered with hair dye, because you were trying to put magenta streaks in your hair, and you had 15 minutes to fill up while the colour soaked in.

 But in favour of of eReaders and iPads, it has to be said that it’s very convenient to carry around an entire library in a small device roughly the size of a sheet of A5 – to know that the flick of a switch can open up the complete works of just about every writer.  The more impatient reader also has the satisfaction of being able to download and start reading a book within a matter of minutes.  (Wi-fi connection permitting, and bank balance allowing).  Also, you can mop soup splashes off the screen, scrub out hair dye and rinse away soapsuds, and you don’t have to replace your complete works of Colin Dexter because the cat was sick on them.

In 3,500 BC, the Sumerians wrote their books on tablets of baked clay. A thousand years later, papyrus scrolls were the reading method of choice. We’ve come a long way since then and probably it’s just as well. The prospect of hauling a couple of dozen clay tablets onto the train to while away your journey is daunting.  Papyrus wasn’t something that could be packed into a shoulder bag or a beach tote, either – the history of the Egyptian King Ramses III was reportedly over 40 metres long.

Bookshops and libraries have changed dramatically, as well.  The ancient and vanished Library of Alexandria is reported as having, in addition to scrolls, a room for dining, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens and lecture halls.  According to one source, an inscription above the shelves read, The place of the cure of the soul.
Forgotten glories…?  And yet today’s libraries often have a coffee area, a section for book clubs and talks – although it’s likely that the rows of computer terminals would have fazed the long-ago Alexandrians.

old-and-rare-books-sellerOnce upon a time there were secondhand bookshops – marvellous places with creaking floorboards and intriguing cobwebby corners. You could spend hours in them, searching for lost titles by long-ago authors.  Often it was a good idea to take a few sandwiches and a flask with you, cancelling all engagements for the rest of the week.
But sad to relate, such places are dying out, although it should be noted that the world wide web has developed a quirky charm of its own.  I’ve bought secondhand books from sellers rejoicing in the internet names of Salty Mavis, Captain Jellyman Twinkle, and Alex the Fat Dawg.

Quite apart from the shops themselves being so intriguing, they were excellent venues for authors who had a character needing to discover a clue, and they were an absolute gift to writers of mysteries with an historic slant.  Any number of plots to assassinate a king or queen, to smuggle a pretender onto a throne, or topple a royal line, could be uncovered by a character searching diligently along dusty shelves.  Privately-printed diaries could be disinterred as well, revealing all manner of scandalous secrets.  On that last score, I’d have to give honourable mention to Denis Mackail’s short story, The Lost Tragedy – written in 1926, still to be found in various anthologies and well worth searching out.

And as for the debate about the printed page versus the screen – that’s something that will probably run for a very long time.

STORY TELLING – THE ANCIENT ART

scheherazade1_zpsd56eee2b

There are many theories as to when story-telling actually began.  In the old Arabian legends, Scheherazade was allowed to live for the following day if she told an entertaining story that night.  Which is singing for your supper with a vengeance.

Our prehistoric ancestors spun tales about what might lie in the darkness beyond their cave fires. They were a bit restricted, of course, not having pens or paper or ink, and probably limited when it came to actual speech, as well, but they could paint their stories with considerable clarity and drama, as innumerable cave paintings prove. They probably didn’t go a huge bundle on chick-lit – describing a candle-lit dinner wouldn’t have met with much credibility when most people were living in hollowed-out rocks, and hoarding their fire-making equipment to keep prowling predators at bay – but they would have been able to tell many a gripping yarn when it came to chase sequences.  ‘And the dinosaur ran for its life, with the entire clan chasing it…’

When James Frazer was collecting material for the Golden Bough, he was very generous with the giving out of fire-water to the various tribes he talked to.  And the tribes, liking the fire-water – as who would not? – apparently used to go away and think up tales to tell him, to get more of the stuff.  Which begs the question as to how far a legend can be trusted.

There’s also the existence of the quest, a plot structure found almost everywhere on earth from the earliest recorded times. It’s a universally-known theme:  a character leaves the safety of his home, and whether he’s searching for the Holy Grail, a Golden Fleece, or the ‘One Ring that rules them all,’ he has to endure a dangerous journey into forbidden territories (allowing the narrator to conjure up marvellous and often fantastical settings), and usually defeat a few enemies along the way.  Often there’s a period of extreme hardship to be endured as Sir Gareth found in the Knights of the Round Table saga, when he was made to work as what Thomas Malory calls a ‘lowly kitchen boy’ in Camelot, before achieving recognition, honour, and – of course –  winning the lady of the castle.

A similar period of adversity is accorded to the heroine best known as Cinderella – a story which apparently pre-dates Grimm and Disney by almost a thousand years, and seems to have made its first appearance in a Chinese book written around 850 A.D.  In that version, Cinderella is called Yeh-hsien, and her ball gown is a cloak of kingfisher feathers, although the shoe motif remains, with gold shoes replacing the glass slippers – which glitter-shoesprobably proves that a girl in any era will suffer a good deal to get a decent pair of shoes, and may go some way to explaining the shocking cost of today’s Christian Louboutins.

In 1930 with television still in its infancy, there was widespread horror at a project to dramatise a novella for TV.  The title was The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, and it was prophesied that the experiment would herald the end of the book – that the country would subside into a cultural wilderness and authors would become an endangered species.

It didn’t happen.  Nowadays, authors and publishers will do anything to secure a TV deal for a book.  As for digital publishing – according to some authorities, the success of that took the publishing world somewhat by surprise.

The art of story-telling goes on.  It adapts and, as an art, it’s a survivor.

The people who spin the stories adapt as well.  They, too, are survivors.

A MATTER OF A NAME… and an unexpected piece of theatre lore

 

death-notes-currentWhile writing Death Notes, (Book One of the Phineas Fox series), I was initially delighted to discover the existence of the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Odessa – a building that had the splendid address of No 1 Tchaikovsky Street.
The theatre had been burned down towards the end of the 19th century, and it seemed that this might all fit beautifully into a plot that wove in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. (Less well-known than the butchery meted out to his grandson, Nicholas and family in 1917, but sufficiently documented to make it possible to disinter the salient facts).

odessa-theatre
Odessa Theatre today

I wrote four chapters, with happy diligence, making use of this Russian theatre.  Then I discovered that it had burned down in January 1873 – which was eight years too soon for the plot. I cursed the person who had struck the matches (tinder box?) in 1873 for not waiting just a few more years before consigning a beautiful old theatre to blackened rubble, and then I muttered imprecations against the tsar’s assassins for not bringing their dastardly plot forward, and committing the foul deed in 1873 instead of 1881.
And since the dates of assassinations can’t be shifted, any more than the burning of illustrious theatres can be put forward, in the end I resorted to the ploy of most writers in such a situation.  I set about creating a fictional theatre.  This seemed a very good idea, until I hit the problem of what to call it.  Names matter, and the theatre I was conjuring up, the theatre that would stand somewhere in Tchaikovsky Street (because I wasn’t going to lose that terrific street name), had to sound authentic and romantic.
ghost-songAn English theatre mightn’t have been difficult.  A few years earlier, writing Ghost Song, I had created the Tarleton Theatre, the name a nod to the memory of the Elizabethan clown actor, Richard Tarleton.  I had even called the theatre yard Platt’s, from the old word for a stage plot (layout).  But this was Russia.
I rummaged the bookshelves, scouring dictionaries and reference books and encyclopediae to find a suitable name. I trawled the internet.  Chapter 11 lay abandoned and incomplete on the hard drive. Chapter 12 was still worryingly embryonic (scrappy notes in Word), and Chapter 13 was a mere hope somewhere on the horizon, with no Word or, indeed, words to its name.  Chapters 4-10, all containing the infuriatingly inaccurate references to the Odessa Theatre, patiently awaited amendment.  My agent and my editor patiently awaited a manuscript.

Then I discovered a wonderful piece of Russian theatre folklore – that of the ancient skomorokhs_02people called the skomorokhi.
The skomorokhi appear to be part of an astonishingly old tradition – dating to around the ninth or tenth century, and there are frescoes portraying them in Kiev, thought to date to the 11th century.  They were medieval, East Slavic harlequins – actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances.
Traces of them and their legend are sprinkled over the centuries, and the Tale of Bygone Years, sometimes known as the Primary Chronicle which covers about 850 to 1110, uncompromisingly denounces the skomorokhi as devil servants,
Several authorities suggest that the word, Skomorokh, is linked to the Italian Scaramouch – the clown character of Italian commedia dell’arte, which literally translated as Little Skirmisher.  Harlequin and Columbine are known to most people, but that third character, Scaramouch, is perhaps not quite as familiar.
And yet Scaramouch is still around.  In the 1906 fantasy play, Love in a Dutch Garden, (filmed silently in 1918 as Prunella,) a character says, ‘Scaramel, I am tempted…’   Scaramel’s reply is, ‘Always yield to temptation.’  Which may well be borrowed from the infamous Oscar Wilde line, but does go to prove that Scaramel/Scaramouch, knew that if you’re going to plagiarise, you choose the best loot you can.

In Freddie Mercury’s mind-blowing Bohemian Rhapsody, he gives Queen a line that asks, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango…?
It’s likely that Scaramouche and certainly the long-ago Skomorokh performers, could indeed do the fandango and any one of a dozen other dances.

So there it was, the theatre’s name.  Never mind that I couldn’t pronounce it and that I had to enter it into the spell-checker on the computer for auto-completion of the word, it was undoubtedly the Skomorokh Theatre.  The charismatic 19th century violinist, Roman Volf, whose mysterious and scandalous life lay at the heart of the book, could wander through the ruins, weaving plots of his own, possibly in company with a suitably alluring lady.
Best of all, The Skomorokh Theatre itself could burn down in the right year for the plot of Death Notes.
Fiction is frequently so much more easy to manipulate than fact.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0727886606/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i1_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=&pf_rd_r=AGR9W5JXJ70Q91NRXSBT&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=73fe89c4-d62f-4a8a-8074-7c0f4d46813c&pf_rd_i=desktop

 

TRAVELLING THROUGH FICTION… IT’S NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE

ancient_world_map_by_bilui.jpgThere was a time when a degree of glamour attached itself to a journey – when journeys themselves could provide a writer with a splendidly atmospheric setting.  You could place your characters on a train or a ship and cast them into all manner of perilous, murderous, or even merely romantic situations.  You could bump people off, cause annoying bit-part players to vanish, and you could develop relationships over a civilized meal in the restaurant car or at the captain’s table, (assuming you had remembered to allot to the lovers the income needed to travel First Class).  You could even allow a casual encounter to become an actual liaison – providing that if the characters were destined to enjoy the railway’s equivalent of the Mile High Club, you were careful to avoid such busy intersections as Crewe and most of the main London termini.

But although travel is nowadays fast, clean, and efficient, (we could possibly exclude the train networks on that last one), something’s been lost for authors.  Because if there had been a high-speed, open-carriage service, would Agatha Christie’s redoubtable Miss Marple have become imbroiled in the murder on the 4.50 from Paddington?  And would the English lady have vanished so completely and so intriguingly in Ethel Lina White’s classic The Wheel Spins, filmed as The Lady Vanishes? Would the ill-starred Anna Karenina have had quite such a complex relationship with Vronsky if they had not been shut into a railway carriage together so early in the plot?

Brief EncounterIt’s difficult, as well, to picture the lovers in Brief Encounter playing out their grand renunciation scene without the swirling smoke of steam engines shrouding them, the relentless chug of trains blurring the dialogue, and the crashing of crockery from the seedy buffet.  Even if you imported all three movements of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto and had Lang Lang playing them, gut-wrenching farewells just aren’t the same on a modern, multi-platformed station, with indecipherable announcements assaulting the senses, and soulless machines dispensing tea, coffee and soup.

To be fair, murders can still be staged on inter-continental journeys, but Dame Agatha did really corner the market on that one, and the Inland Revenue are annoyingly suspicious of expense claims for a trip on today’s version of the Orient Express.

It would be lovely to set a ghost story on a railway station, as Charles Dickens memorably did with The Signalman, and as Arnold Ridley did when he wrote The Ghost Train – the stage ghost-train-1version of which is still being performed up and down the country by professional and amateur companies alike.  Anyone who ever saw the 1941 film version with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch can probably remember the marvellous scenes in the tunnel, where the mysterious figure of Ted Holmes is said to be glimpsed, “His lamp still burning in his hand,” singing Rock of Ages as he haunts the tunnels.
But ghosts don’t seem to have a place in train stations any longer – although St Pancras is still nicely gothic, and you might get a good bit of atmosphere from the Underground, as a number of film-makers have discovered.  Creep comes to mind here, of course, and also The Taking of Pelham, 1, 2 and 3.  And J K Rowling certainly immortalised Kings Cross and its fabled Platform 9 ¾, with Goathland Station in North Yorkshire (largely unchanged since 1865), providing a terrific setting for Hogsmeade in the film.

The old story-tellers knew the value of adding a bit of mystery to a journey.  Travellers on the brink of unexplored lands (perhaps running out of energy, courage, or simply food), would instruct the map-makers to write, ‘Here be dragons’, on the uncharted areas.  Thus conjuring up all kinds of alluring lands for future journeys, and far more fun than losing the signal on a sat-nav, or running out of petrol on the M25. Although both these events can open up intriguing possibilities for plot developments.

James Elroy Flecker, in his 1913 verse-drama Hassan – The Golden Road to Samarkand, wrote:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

Those are words that conjure up the ancient silk routes and the caravanserai of Persia and Isfahan.
Standing on a railway platform, sipping a plastic cup of instant coffee, listening to automated announcements about delays due to leaves on the line (sometimes snow, as well), doesn’t have quite the same resonance as the dimly-lit night corridors of Hercule Poirot’s Orient Express, or of Flecker’s glimmering sea…   Perching on an uncomfortable chair in an airport lounge for five hours because your flight is cancelled owing to an air traffic control computer crash can’t compare with Rider Haggard’s doughty travellers trekking across deserts and braving shipwshangri-lareck fever to discover King Solomon’s mines…
Nor is there any comparison with the
romantic allure contained in the plane crash in a Tibetan snowstorm in Lost Horizon – a crash that sent the passengers on the legendary journey to the fabled and fabulous Shangri-La.
Those really were journeys.

THE RETURN OF THE WOLFKING

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a quartet of fantasy books set in ancient Ireland and starring a charismatic, slightly-dangerous, and not entirely human creature…  Cormac mac Airt was inspired by a medieval King of Ireland of the same name, and I loved creating him. The books have been out of print for many years, but early in 2016 I was approached with a proposal to digitally re-issue them. And so, 20 years after I spun him out of Celtic myth and legend, I’m delighted that the Wolfking is returning…

 WolfkingThe genesis for the Wolfking series came from two sources.  The first was a song that was part of my school tradition.  It’s an early nineteenth century poem by Thomas Moore, set to an old traditional air:                                                                     The harp that once through Tara’s halls       The soul of music shed,                              Now hangs as mute on Tara‘s walls              As if that soul were fled.’

Even today, the words conjure up end of term concerts, with rows of beaming parents.  But beyond all that, the idea of Tara itself brought a marvellous tumble of images: purple forests and the misty mountains of Erin, and the dazzling halls of the Court.

In creating Cormac I drew on a very different childhood memory.  A fear of wolves. One dark, rainy afternoon, I found an old book containing that most famous of all children’s stories, Little Red Riding Hood.  The pages were dry and foxed, and the illustrations (probably they were by Gustave Doré), were the stuff of nightmares.  But I read the story over and over again with a kind of helpless compulsion.

But years later, drawing on those fears to write the Wolfking quartet, I discovered that wolves could be tamed.

Something else I discovered during the writing of those books, is what fun it is to write fantasy – also how different the process is from setting a book in the real world.  For instance:-

FOOD

The preparing and eating of meals might initially seem to be a problem in fantasy. You can’t send your characters out for a pub lunch or to the Italian trattoria on the corner.  Nor can they phone for a pizza delivery, to scoff with a bottle of vino in front of a DVD.  On the other hand, you can create marvellous banquets with all kinds of strange dining customs, and characters can feast off exotic dishes, long since forgotten.

ROMANCE

Writing about romance (to give it its polite term) in the real world might call for a candlelit dinner, soft music on the stereo and silk sheets in the bedroom.  Or, if you’re reaching the maximum word-count and your hero and heroine tend to be brisk about such things, you revert to the Italian trattoria and plenty of Chianti.  In fantasy you might not get the silk sheets, but you can have a bedchamber strewn with rose petals, and the soft music can be supplied by a fantasy version of a Palm Court orchestra.  (If you’re a ruler in fantasy land you can order pretty much what you want on these occasions, as the Wolfkings usually did).

PLOT SNAGS

 In fantasy you can often cut your way out of these by creating a spell – newly-woven or disinterred from a cobwebbed crypt, or possibly stolen from a rival sorcerer.  This last is good, because it allows you to start a sub-plot, in which a few characters can be sent on a quest, braving assorted dangers along the way.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

 There’s no NHS in fantasy, of course, or private medical schemes.  But if a character has over-indulged at one of the lush banquets, or, more likely, has a sword-wound from a battle, you can have a great time creating an eccentric druid or a wandering bard with a useful store of medical knowledge and a cartload of potions.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

CourtBoth have to exist in fantasy, but the crimes can be pleasingly exotic.  They might range from the pilfering of a spell to the usurping of a throne.                             The punishments are exotic, as well.  It isn’t a question of turning up at Court No 3 and being sentenced to two years in the nick, or even an afternoon in the stocks.  In fantasy, people can be exiled from kingdoms.  They can be turned to stone or drowned in lakes of blood. They can be sacrificed in a ritual specially written for the occasion.  Often, they can be dramatically killed in a battle.  This allows the author to write a lively chapter, brimful of heroism, with the air ringing with Henry V-type rallying cries – after which everybody can have a splendidly Bacchanalian banquet by way of celebration.

As for the overall structure of the books, I wanted to tie those ancient forests and that lost Irish grandeur into the future.  To create a bridge to that long-ago world – but a bridge that would not start in the present, with its too-easily-recognisable technology, but that would be far in the future…  In a world where technology was an almost forgotten word – where things such as television, telephones, cars, electricity, were only legends.  A world destroyed and laid waste by a catastrophe so massive it had torn open a chink in Time’s fabric…  A chink through which someone from that future world might fall, to find herself in the Wolfking’s enchanted lair on the very edge of the dazzling halls of Tara’s Court…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolfking-Book-1-Sarah-Rayne-ebook/dp/B01ENC94JI?ie=UTF8&keywords=Sarah%20Rayne&qid=1461328340&ref_=sr_1_2&s=digital-text&sr=1-2

 

LEGALIZING THE PLOT

C DickensThe legal profession has always been a novelists’ treasure house, and lawyers themselves are a gift to writers of fiction.  If your plot has wound itself into a hopeless tangle, you can often solve matters by allowing the family solicitor to discover old documents or a Will which will provide motives the reader hasn’t yet suspected exist, (and that the author didn’t realise were going to be needed).            There can even be the discovery that the solicitor has forged the Will/siphoned off the trust fund/faked a promissory note – even pilfered the petty cash – thus giving him/her a credible motive for one or two juicy (or even judicial) murders, and so becoming the villain of the piece.

Wills can be very useful to an author.  If a house needs to be polempty for a number of years, one way to achieve this is by a Will’s disappearance.  For Property of a Lady, I created an old-fashioned firm of lawyers whose senior partner wore a high-wing collar, and whose office was crammed with decades of stacked-up deed boxes. The gentleman died at his desk – he was found by a junior clerk, but several sets of vital documents were not. This allowed the property – Charect House – to stand empty for a very long time, crumbling into suitably gothic dereliction while the ownership was disputed and fruitless searches made for the Title Deeds.

Comedic lawyers in fiction are regarded with affection.  John Mortimer (himself a former barrister), knew this when he created Rumpole of the Bailey, memorably portrayed on TV by Leo McKern. Frequently awash with his favourite claret (‘Chateau Thames Embankment’), Horace Rumpole cheerfully wrought havoc in his Chambers, doled out wise, if not always practical, advice to juniors, and generally managed to confound most judges before whom he appeared.

Other writers, however, were not always favourably disposed to the legal profession.  Shakespeare, in Henry V1 Part 2, gives one character the line, ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. Hamlet, exchanging macabre pleasantries with Horatio in the graveyard and considering a disinterred skull, asks, ‘Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?’  And in Goethe’s Dr Faust, the hapless doctor grumpily observes that, ‘All rights and laws are transmitted like an eternal sickness.’  Given that poor Heinrich signed a legal document that went horribly wrong, perhaps the sentiment is understandable.

Bleak HouseCharles Dickens drew on his time as a solicitor’s clerk (a job he apparently disliked), and as a court reporter, to weave satirical portrayals of the English legal system, with characters caught like hapless flies in the dusty spider strands of the law.  When, in Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble advised a court that, ‘The law is an ass’, Dickens may have been borrowing from a 17th century play called Revenge for Honour, which is attributed to both George Chapman and Henry Glapthorne, depending on which source you check.  Not much seems known about Henry Glapthorne, but apparently Master Chapman signed an agreement for a loan which never materialised.  According to the reports, he spent years petitioning Chancery to release him from payment, but at one stage was arrested for debt.  (A fate which hovers over many writers to this day). Under those circumstances (supposing the facts to be accurate), it’s hardly surprising that Master Chapman did what a great many other writers have done:  he wrote out his frustrations in the plot.    

Recently I came across the term “infangentheof”.  I had never encountered it, but it seems that the literal translation is “in-taken-thief”, and it permitted the owners of a piece of land the right to mete out justice to miscreants captured within their estates, regardless of where the poor wretches actually lived.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon arrangement, supposedly from the time of Edward the Confessor, but when the Normans came barrelling in, they made cheerful use of it as well, because it helped keep the rebellious Saxons in their place.

Infangentheof fell more or less into disuse in the fourteenth century.  But one afternoon, having become lost in the depths of the countryside, I came across a field with a sign on the gate saying, ‘Infanger’s Field’.  A fragment from the past?  A shred of some long-ago feudal baron who had named a field as a warning to miscreants?  I made eager notes, although it was a bit unfortunate that I dropped my notebook in the mud, (I think it was mud – I hope it was mud), and perhaps I wouldn’t have worn scarlet gloves if I had known there was a bull in the field.                                                                                                   I’m doubtful if I could find the field again.  It might not even exist.  It might have been time-slip land – a fragment of the medieval era that had momentarily slipped through a tear.  Being prosaic, it’s also possible that a Mr or Mrs Infanger might live – and farm – in the area. Whatever the truth, the notes are perfectly legible (even if the paper is somewhat pungently scented), and I daresay the bull enjoyed eating the woolly gloves I threw to him by way of diversion while I scrambled over the gate to safety.                                                                   Writers go to considerable lengths to get a plot sometimes.

Dark Dividing USWriting A Dark Dividing some years ago, I searched for an appropriate house name for the brooding old orphanage/workhouse that played such an integral part in the plot.  Names of places matter just as much as names of characters.  You can’t call a Victorian asylum Rosemount Manor or a gaol housing condemned prisoners Summerville Court.   Then I came across the word mortmain, which opened up another unknown chink of law. The Statute of Mortmain (ie dead man’s hand), dates back to around 1200. The kings of that time used to hand out land to religious houses, but after a while it dawned on them that the owners of the land would never actually die – ownership simply passed from abbot to abbot.  That meant the medieval equivalent of death duties were never payable.  So the Mortmain Law was created to close up this loophole and allow the monarchs to scoop up the dosh.  A cynic might wonder if the law was also intended to check the growing wealth of the church, but whatever the reasons behind its creation, it gave me Mortmain House.

The law, with all its quirks and archaic convolutions, provides remarkably good plot devices for authors.  There are tithes and torts and peppercorn rents. There’s assumpsit (medieval breach of contract), and gavelkind (a Saxon form of limited land ownership).

Since Magna Carta a great many of those old laws have been repealed.  Some remain though, and traces of others can still be found today.  Even if one of those traces is simply a field that might once have known the ancient practice of infangentheof, but that now houses only an indignant bull.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Property-Michael-Flint-Haunted-House/dp/1847513476/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1456305848&sr=1-6

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Dividing-Sarah-Rayne-x/dp/1934609803/ref=tmm_pap_title_3?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1456305848&sr=1-5

 

BUILDING THE INSPIRATIONS – AND AVOIDING THE PITFALLS

 

There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story.  It’s, ‘Listen to the house.’  It’s something I’ve done for years.

owen-wingrave
Set for the BBC2 production of Owen Wingrave, designed by David Myerscough-Jones

By ‘listen’ I don’t mean yomping round the Tower of London and thinking you’re hearing Ann Boleyn grumbling about the damp cell she was put in.  Or taking a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, and imagining echoes of a muttered conversation in a dark corner… ‘And if we hide the gunpowder here they’ll never find it, but this time, Guy, please don’t forget the matches…

I mean ordinary buildings – places where people have lived and worked.  Their atmospheres, their histories, their usage, present and past – these are all chockfull of interest

There are, though a few pitfalls that can trap the unwary author who makes use of real buildings and genuine places:-

DISAPPEARANCE

The original venue can have disappeared without you realising. In that case, there’s usually a reader who lives there, and who writes to you – or, worse, to your editor – indignantly pointing out that Arnold couldn’t have drowned Ethel in the duck pond, because since last year it’s been a supermarket.

DIVERSION

The building is certainly still there, but between your research and the book’s publication the local authority has built a bypass and/or a four-lane motorway. Consequently, instead of the reader being able to imagine the unravelling of dark secrets and discreditable histories in a remote house shrouded in brooding silence, the action now appears to take place to the accompaniment of rumbling pantechnicons and police sirens chasing joy-riders.  Alternatively, a neighbouring land-owner has extended his farm, so the seduction scene in the coppice, with the heroine swooning to the scent of meadowsweet and the sound of birdsong, would now appear to happen against a backdrop of clattering tractors and the pungent atmosphere from the new pig-sties.

DESTRUCTION

You base an historical sub-plot around a building, then discover the building no longer existed at the time of your story. This happened to me when I wove a Russian theatre into a sub-plot about the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  It wasn’t until I had written four chapters that I discovered the theatre had burned down eight years before Alexander was bumped off – and that re-building hadn’t begun until two years after it.  At this point, I should acknowledge – and apologise for – the fact that writers have a regrettable streak of egocentricity.  I suspect it’s not uncommon for authors wanting to use an historical event to curse the fact that a war/coup/assassination happened inconveniently early or just six months too late.

DIFFERENCE

You don’t check out the venue beforehand – probably because you’re too broke to travel to it at the time – but you write the book anyway. Later, you visit the place and find it’s blood-ritual-currenttotally different.  Some years ago I wrote a contemporary horror novel based on the seventeenth-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  She used to bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.  (I have no idea if it worked, although clearly Elizabeth believed it did).  She lived in the Carpathian Mountains, but she also had a town house in Vienna.  When I wrote Blood Ritual I wasn’t able to travel to either place, but a few years later I did go to Vienna, and I found her house in a place called the Blutgasse – Blood Alley. I was pleased to discover that the Blutgasse was as creepy and ancient as I had described – one of those really eerie pockets of Old Vienna – owing its name, apparently, to the slaughter of the Knights Templar in the 12th century, when the old cobblestones ran with their blood.  However, at one end of the Blutgasse was a kind of T-junction, with a house that was open to the public – it  was possible to stand in one of the rooms of that house and look through the window onto Elizabeth’s residence. That house was open to the public because it had once been lived in by Mozart, who had composed a great deal of his marvellous music there.  So he would have done so while looking across to the home of a woman who, in her day, had slaughtered more than 300 young girls.  If a century and a half hadn’t separated those two, they would have been neighbours; they could have waved to one another, or discussed the weather when putting out the milk bottles.  It’s certain that I would have portrayed parts of that book slightly differently if I’d been able to travel to Vienna before I wrote it.

DEMOLISHED

For years you intend to set a book at a favourite venue. In the town where I lived as a child was a semi-derelict castle.  It stood on the summit of a small hill – the old feudal lords always built their strongholds high up so they could keep out a watchful eye for any enterprising enemies that might sneak up on them.  The original medieval castle fell victim to a variety of fates, but the main stafford-castlereason for its downfall, was Time.  Simply, it crumbled away. So, with typical nineteenth century gusto, a replica was built on the site.  But it was a replica so outrageously gothic that if it had been offered for sale, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley would have climbed over one another to own it, and Edgar Allen Poe and Matthew Lewis would have been taking gleeful notes.  I was always determined to write a book using this gorgeously gothic old pile and its back story.  And then, one dark and stormy night (what else could it have been?) it toppled down.  The fact that it did so in instalments, one chunk at a time, rather than in a dramatic avalanche of stones and turrets, did nothing to save the embryo plot.

But using a real place can sometimes work brilliantly.   About 10 years ago I discovered a spider-lightwonderful 15th century flour mill in Nether Alderley in Cheshire.  The National Trust team there gave generously and enthusiastically of their time and knowledge, and the result was the macabre and – to quote one review – ‘nightmarishly unforgettable’ Twygrist Mill in Spider Light.  It looked, as one character said, as if it had ‘grown up by itself overnight when no one was looking.’

So, on balance, it’s usually easier, better for the plot, and certainly a lot of fun, to set aside real-life scenarios and construct a fictional building – mental word-brick by mental word-brick.  That being so, I’ll end this blog by explaining I’m off to don a hard hat, some snazzy overalls, and get the stepladder down from the attic…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Ritual-Sarah-Rayne-ebook/dp/B0098OR9J4/ref=pd_sim_351_4?ie=UTF8&dpID=41Ofu4hUtgL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR102%2C160_&refRID=14KHDE32K64MS697A6V7

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Spider-Light-Sarah-Rayne/dp/0743489667/ref=tmm_pap_title_1?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455441841&sr=1-12