Talking to Lorraine Mace about discovering Sandman

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In order to reliably convey Sandman, I delved into the history of Afghanistan. I didn’t struggle with understanding the mentality of a nation subjugated by the Soviets – that was easy, I know of it first-hand. Sandman’s personal journey through two wars was harder. I am eternally grateful to Rodric Braithwaite for writing Afghantsy, The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. I read that book from cover to cover, took notes, re-read passages, and I gained a glimpse of what may be crossing the mind of an Afghan who had lost everything apart from his expertise in killing. I hope Sandman captured the essence of the mind of a terrorist.

The whole article: http://thewritersabcchecklist.blogspot.com/2020/01/friday-fiction-feature-anna-legat.html

The Testaments – how to write a perfectly original sequel

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It is often the case when a sequel to a novel or a film is just a watered down version of the original. It has the same protagonists facing the same dilemmas with a few tweaks to the time and place setting, and a few flashy gimmicks and new characters thrown into the mix to refresh the plot. Think Star Wars.

Authors (like myself) who write series have to be very conscious of templates, repetition and stagnation. Yes, the heroes of the series grow on our readers and yes, they have to be presented with consistency. But everything else in every new sequel has to be fresh, surprising and curious: a new bookish land yet to be discovered and explored. Otherwise, it all becomes stale like the same stretch of the same congested road a commuter gets stuck on every day. Even the most ardent fans will grow bored and frustrated.

The Testaments are a lesson on how to avoid the pitfalls of sequels – the curse of the sameness. The first-person narrative moves away from June. It is now the infamous Aunt Lydia, and two teenage girls (one brought up in Gilead and the other one in Canada), who take the centre-stage. Their stories are vivid and engaging. I was guessing, I was speculating, I was biting my nails – all the things you do when the plot draws you in. The thought-provoking message of The Testaments did not detract from Atwood’s cracking story telling.

Not all of the Booker Prize winners found favour with me as a reader. Some of them I started only to find myself overwhelmed with the heavy theme or the author’s eloquent philosophical referencing. So I wouldn’t bother to read on. Atwood has a message, but that message is delivered subtly, without overpowering the story or dwarfing the characters. And that is the beauty of The Testaments.

 

First, there was the Word – The Handmaid’s Tale

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Between watching the last available episode of June’s story and opening –with the utmost care, as the author urges me to do on the cover – The Testaments to read what happens next, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale.

The TV series is based on the book. In its own right the series is powerful, uncompromising, thought-provoking. It is also full of dramatic tension, twists, visual effects that burn into your skull, fast pace between now and then, as well as amazing acting – I mean, a-ma-zing. It is brilliant TV. There are very few writers out there who would refuse having their novels adapted for performance. Whether it is for the stage, the radio, television or cinema we want our stories to stay alive and continue to be re-enacted for our audiences, be it readers, listener or viewers. And looking at it from the other side of the coin, there is no film nor theatre or radio play without it being written first. As the famous first line of the most-read book in the world says, First there was the word.

But that doesn’t mean that novels should be written in scenes or film frames. The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t. Reading it, you would think that it is too retrospective and too abstract to ever qualify for adaption. But you would be wrong. Novels – great novels – provide inspiration, a theme, a focus, a feel. Adaptations run away with that and develop it into scenes, frames, events and twisty plots. One does not detract from the other. To the contrary, one feeds off the other. I took note of that as writer: it is written in big red letters in my little black book.

I loved both the series and the book though the series took several liberties with the characters and the plot. Despite that, The Handmaid’s Tale remains instantly recognisable.

The genre provides interesting dilemmas too. You may know from my earlier blogs that I am genre averse. At first sight you would be tempted to classify The Handmaid’s Tale as sci-fi – it is about the future. But it isn’t. Atwood refers to it as speculative fiction. This term fits perfectly. It is about our world today as it may or may not evolve. The chances are that it will. If you believe that, the speculation draws you in and it becomes your alternative reality (like it or not). And when the book your read becomes your reality, then you know you’re reading a masterpiece.

Sandman – an expert opinion

Sandman review Major AFAn email arrived in my inbox from a retired British army officer. He wished to share his thoughts with me about Sandman (book 4 in the DI Marsh series). I read his email with a flutter in my stomach: a mixture of excitement and trepidation. After all, this was an expert in the field of warfare, and he was referring to my book!

He wrote:*

“I am not able to offer an erudite, literate assessment of Sandman however on a visceral level the book is, well, it just …  ‘works’. It is entertaining, absorbing, addictive and well structured or, in other words a jolly good read. I enjoyed your book, my wife enjoyed your book and now my daughter is reading – and enjoying – your book.

Your grasp of the realities is sublime. The heaviness of a German Toy. The sullen, slack, dead weight of a body. Anger and adrenaline. Detachment and retreat from emotions.

You have quite captured the bleak landscape of killing. You have understood the realities of war, radicalisation, anger and the practicalities of survival in a foreign land.

Medals. Your Sergeant Butler won the Military Cross in the Falklands. […] at the time there was class distinction in all walks of life, even gallantry. Richard Butler would not have been eligible for an MC in 1982, his award would have been the Military Medal.

Magnum. The Magnum .44 is an awful gun. It is extremely heavy with a vicious recoil, making accurate shooting very difficult indeed. It is also very expensive and the ammunition is hard to obtain. It is however a superb weapon if one is very close to a target and one has strong wrists… !!

The Magnum? Good and bad – the parsons… A veritable conundrum. Dirty Harry, .44 Magnum cartridge and the power of a shotgun. But expensive, rare and hard to use. The S&W 29 is a blood heavy gun…

If your terrorist wanted a firearm, then something from the bloc would be far easier and cheaper. Makarov. CZ75. Second hand P38? Cheap, anonymous and easily found.

Or American – 1911, Colt. German – Walther.

The ending of your book, hard and fair. Have you left room for another chapter? Is the tale not yet complete? Or is there a new story to tell?”

I am so chuffed with this feedback that I could scream the roof off the house! It’s constructive and honest, and at the same time, it is positive! A jolly good read! he said.

It is often said, but not often enough, that book reviews are the writer’s life support. We feed on them. They help us build meaningful relationships with readers. Praise sends us orgasmic with pride. Brutal criticism has its value too, as long as it is constructive and not designed to hurt. Criticism is like bitter-tasting medicine – we don’t like it much, but once we digested it, we find that it helps us get better at our craft. So, dearest reader, never hesitate to share your reviews, no matter how short. Writers crave them. When they finally arrive we feast on them, get drunk on them, and crave more.

*I omitted personal detail – if the gentleman wanted to make them public himself he would have posted his thoughts somewhere on Amazon or Goodreads, though perhaps he is unfamiliar with those platforms.

 

Would you rather live in Handcock’s Bottom or is Marston Bigot more up your street?

I had a whale of a time when conniving the settings for my cosy crime series The Shires Mysteries. Truth be told, I nearly wet my pants.

To find a name for the village that would host all of the crimes I had in mind, I needed something memorable but authentic – something that would sit comfortably alongside all the real-life places in my county. Something that didn’t sound out of place in the Shires.

I reside in a place called Upper Studley. Upper is a common qualifier for an English village and it sounds immensely better than Lower or Little. They are equally common but less classy than my Upper. Then you have the Bottoms. They are, well literally, at the bottom of the ladder. For how would one feel dwelling in Handcock’s Bottom, or Scratchy Bottom, or Bottom Flash? How about Crinkley Bottom or Bottom Burn? If you aren’t into Bottoms, then would you consider buying a cottage in Buttock or a small bungalow in Great Butts? They are real villages proudly inhabited by real villagers.

I decided against setting my stories in the nether regions. I set my sights high – closer to Upper than Lower. Upton struck me as a possibility. There are a lot of Uptons around here. Think Upton Cow Down – yes, it’s a real place that can be found on a map, as can Upton Snodsbury. But they seemed too pretentious to me.

Tiddley Wink tickled my fancy. It’s a not a big village. In fact, it isn’t a village but a tiny hamlet. When I drove through it for the first time, I blinked and I missed it.

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My mother-in-law is now a resident in a residential home located in Limpley Stoke. Oh yes, she is! When we visit, we can pop over to the village pub called The Hop Pole Inn. Oh yes, we can! Here it is:

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The Hop Pole Inn in Limpley Stoke

Ultimately, I opted against naming my fictional village using an existing name, so Tiddley Wink and Limpley Stoke had to go, as well as Booby Dingle, Grope Lane, Farleigh Wallop and Clench Common.

Finally, I settled on Bishops Well. Not very imaginative, I hear you say. Life can be so much more out of this world than fiction!

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The Church of St John the Baptist in Bishops Well

Sandman – an extract from the sea-crossing

There is shouting on the boat. Commotion. Men and women, encouraged by each other, stronger en masse, pushed against the wall, are demanding water. Haji doesn’t know what started the riot. It could’ve been that more people had pushed up from the stern, escaping the flooding. They were being squashed and have grown desperate. Despair breeds defiance.

Two of the smugglers come down to deal with the situation, both armed. They brandish their weapons in a display of might. Haji sighs. They are deluding themselves if they think they have the monopoly on killing. Despite their guns and their theatrics, Haji reads fear in their faces. People are screaming, waving their fists.

‘No water! No water left!’ The older one of the smugglers presents his empty hands in a gesture of helplessness. He turns and points towards the dark horizon. ‘Italia! Wait! Italia close! Europa!’ The sun rising in front of him hits the metal of his automatic pistol. It shines in Haji’s eyes. People aren’t listening or they don’t believe the smuggler’s assurances. The shouting intensifies and, when that happens, children begin to cry. It’s mayhem. Some passengers have risen to their feet and are approaching their minders, fearless and furious. Demanding water. Pleading for water. The younger of the two smugglers loses his footing and slips. He is angry for his humiliation and to cover up for it he grabs a shabby man closest to him and pushes him down towards the stern. The shabby man falls to his knees, splashing water around him. Another person is thrust on top of him. And another one. The smuggler is throwing people across the deck into the flooded stern. ‘You want water?’ he yells, his voice high with irritation. ‘You got water   down there!’ He kicks another person – it’s a woman. Her companion hurls himself at the assailant, but the older smuggler reaches for his pistol and shoots the man.

Silence.

Dead silence. And then the widowed woman starts wailing and scrambles towards her husband’s body. Others join her and the boat begins to sink.

It was inevitable.

Large bubbles, swollen with air, boil over – the stern submerges within seconds. Everyone presses to the bow, but it’s no good. The bow is going to go, too. Someone, the skipper rushes out of the cabin and sends a flare into the sky. It explodes, red illuminations in the grey morning sky.

People are jumping off the boat before its mass drags them into the depths. The family of five – Haji’s neighbours – are in disarray. The father and Boy have dived in, the father with the four-year-old girl in his arms. The mother and the baby just fell into the sea, and gave in to it without a fight. They went down like a smashed block of concrete. Boy is splashing haplessly, screaming, choking on water. Haji realises Boy cannot swim. He dives in and searches for him in the whirlpool of sinking bodies; his fingers meet Boy’s arm, and they claw at it. He pushes him up towards the light of the rising sun.

It is a matter of seconds for the boat to vanish from sight and a matter of half an hour before the sea swarming with people becomes calm and still. Haji and Boy are treading water, waiting for a miracle. Haji isn’t one to let go and he is right not to – he hears a distant buzz of a helicopter. He recognises it instantly. He knows the slashing of the air with the rotating blades. He points to Boy, ‘Rescue,’ he says. ‘Wave arms!’

They both wave them, and they shout.

The helicopter pauses over their heads. Water ripples around them, unsettling Boy. Haji has to grab hold of him again. A harness on a rope is being lowered from the helicopter and when it hits the surface it is dragged along it, close enough for Haji to get hold of it. He fastens it under Boy’s arms and watches him being lifted to safety. Then he dives between the waves, and swims away. The land – Italy – cannot be too far. He knows helicopters can’t fly far and he can see the outline of the coast. And even if he doesn’t make it to the shore, he’d rather die free than be captured.

Breaking news: a new book deal

I am thrilled to announce that yesterday I signed a three-book deal with Accent Press for my new series, The Shires Mysteries. I am buzzing with excitement, singing from the rooftops (badly) and purring with pleasure.

The Shires Mysteries feature a pair of accidental sleuths from the depths of Wiltshire’s countryside, a place called Bishops Well, a large village with aspirations to be a town or, according to some inhabitants in the know, a medieval market town which over the centuries fell on hard times. There are a few places like that in Wiltshire. Mine is a cross between Devizes, Trowbridge and a small village with its own claim to fame that I know well, but it’ll let remain anonymous.

One of my intrepid sleuths is Maggie Kaye, a woman of many talents, some of them quite out of this world; she is a Jack of all trades and master of none, with her finger in many pies, including education, journalism, a spot of gardening and the supernatural. The other is Samuel Dee, a widower and retired barrister, who comes to Bishops Well seeking peace and quiet. His best laid plans are derailed when he ends up as Maggie’s neighbour and reluctant confidante.

In the first book, a famous Polish director, a cult figure from the eighties, is murdered at his own birthday bash. Maggie pursues the killer, dragging Sam with her whether he likes it or not. Don’t expect anything gruesome, procedural or blood-curdling. The Shires Mysteries are light and humorous – the genre known as cosy crime.

Accent Press are planning to release the first book, Wide Angle – the Director’s Cut in August 2020. I have doodled a commemorative banner to fill the space between now and then.

The Shires

 

Sandman, the conspiracy of outcasts

Sandman review Charlie Laidlaw2

Just off the genteel Quakers Walk weaving its way amongst rolling fields towards Devizes’ White Horse sprawled upon Roundway Hill, a timid narrow footpath dives into a deep wood. The path is frequented by shady individuals: most of them skinny and unkempt, dressed in threadbare garments, looking older than their actual years due to what one would describe as falling on hard luck.

I once followed that path. It took me down a slippery slope and across a lazy stream towards a well-camouflaged network of under-the-scarp caves. Their existence was betrayed by rugs flapping in entrances and sheets of corrugated iron wedged on top of them. There were also signs of a campsite, a stack of firewood and a few empty bottles and drugs paraphernalia scattered around. The place had a distinct vibe of alienation, depravity and wretchedness about it. It was the homeless’ colony.

In the bushes not far from the path, I heard grunting noises. A quick reconnaissance revealed a couple engaging in the act of fornication. Out in the open! In broad daylight! Those were my first indignant reactions to what I was witnessing. Later on however, upon further reflection, I concluded that I couldn’t really expect the homeless to go and get a room, could I?

That god-forsaken place would a few years later make a perfect setting for Sandman. Haji had to find a hiding place, hole up in there and stay under the radar for days. He had to hide in plain view. He had to blend in. He had to look like he belonged. An Afghan outsider in an alien land, he could not book a hotel in the city or waltz into a quaint village pub in search of low-key accommodation. But he could sit around a campfire with a bunch of like-minded outcasts, and look like he was one of them. They were as disenfranchised as he was. The pariah status was his and their common denominator.

But was their shared existence on the outer perimeter of respectable society enough to give them strength in togetherness – well, let’s see…

Sandman is out tomorrow, 11th April 2019, the fourth instalment in the DI Marsh crime series.

DI Gillian Marsh of the #not-me generation

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DI Gillian Marsh is a handful. She can be abrasive and insubordinate. She is a thorn in her boss’s side because she simply doesn’t know her place. She is every murderer’s worst nightmare because if you’ve got something on your conscience you won’t shake her off your scent. Her team know not to get in her way as she steams through her cases like a runaway train that will wait for no one. No, Gillian isn’t likeable, but that doesn’t worry her. She wasn’t born to be liked – she was born to get to the bottom of the matter. That takes dogged determination, hard-nosed attitude and never letting go. It is no wonder that with all those characteristics, DI Marsh is affectionately known as Pitt Bull.

I am quite particular about not labelling DI Marsh as a lady-detective. Not because she isn’t a lady, but because she wouldn’t appreciate the label – the gender label. When she’s on a case, she isn’t a woman. Neither is she a man. She has no gender.

She is just a damn good detective.

I have been brought up to take gender equality for granted. I have never submitted to gender stereotypes and have led my life as a human being, full stop. If I had to describe myself, I would never start (or finish) with I am a woman. Womanhood would constrict me to one side of humanity. I wouldn’t want to miss on what the other side had to offer. I wouldn’t want to take sides. So no, I am not a feminist. I don’t see a point in gender wars.  I have now passed my beliefs to my protagonist. I won’t have her defined by reference to men or be seen through a man’s eyes. Gillian doesn’t aspire to be man’s equal, or even to be better than any man. Her straightforward and uncomplicated objective is to be the best in absolute terms, without bringing sexuality into it.

I like to think of DI Gillian Marsh as the prototype of the next generation – the post #me-too generation. I like to think of her as the #not-me generation. No one would dream of reducing her to her femininity. No man would dare to take advantage of her womanhood. Make no mistake, Gillian Marsh would not be abused. Being a woman does not make her vulnerable. That’s how she is and that’s how I like her.

That’s what makes her a damn good detective.

Gillian is tenacious and methodical. She analyses cases to death. She calls that inventorising. In her head, she runs an inventory of facts and evidence, mulls them over, tries different angles and matches all the pieces until they all fit together. She doesn’t give up. That constant and entirely absorbing process leaves her little time for domesticity.

Her daughter, Tara, is her Achille’s heel. Gillian is an impromptu mother. She blunders through motherhood, plagued by insecurities and anxieties. God knows how she gets through mothering without major incidents! Probably beginner’s luck. And there is another character flaw on the domestic front. It is to do with men. Gillian doesn’t know quite what to do with them after sex. Men seem to slip through her fingers like sand. She can only give them so much of her time, and that is never quite enough. But that’s the choice she knows she has to make. She has to choose her job. After all, she may not be the greatest lover the world has seen, but –

…she is damn good detective.

Re-blogged from Accent Press:

https://accentpressbooks.com/blogs/author-posts/di-marsh-generation-not-me-by-anna-legat

Inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer

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When I decided that the hero – or rather anti-hero – of my next book would be a terrorist who crosses the width of the earth to inflict death and destruction on the West, I knew I had a tough nut to crack: getting into his head.

I didn’t want to make it easy for myself. It would be all too simple to blame it on the radicalisation of some hapless 16-year old by the social media frenzy. I wanted my villain to have a past, a life before he died inside, a background in the shape of a nation, a country and its history. I didn’t want a brain-washed, new-born fundamentalist or a convert who would need some external, divine intervention in order to grow his own backbone.

So, I found 60-year old Haji, an Afghan veteran of the Soviet War, a scientist educated in the best schools in Moscow, an agnostic, a man open to western values, a rational man, an artist, a family man. You could say, I found a good and ordinary man who turned to terrorism before my eyes. And now, I had to give him reason and credibility. I hope I succeeded on some level.

A lot of research has gone into Sandman. I knew of course first-hand of the effect Soviet rule had on all its satellite countries, of the oppression and the tight grip they had on their neighbours’ politics, security and people’s everyday lives. But I didn’t know the unique Afghan perspective: its rich religious, ethnic and historical tapestry. So, I read all I could about that country and I learned, and I was amazed. It is astonishing how little we, the so-called fat cats of the West, know of any other place on this planet! We are dangerously Eurocentric, and to survive, we have to reach out and find out how the other half lives. But that’s just a small reflection.

Going back to my research for Sandman, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Without it, Sandman would be a shallow puddle of guesswork.

Sandman is due for publication on 11th April 2019. It is ready to pre-order on Amazon and with the Publisher, Accent Press.