Simon Brett, OBE Speaks to Hampshire Writer’s Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s February gathering proved to be an occasion of great contrast, hosting Marian Forkin of The Book Bus charity and Simon Brett OBE, multi-award winning author of serialised crime fiction novels, radio and television producer and script-writer.

Special Guest:  Marian Forkin.

Marian explained that the fundamental aim of The Book Bus organisation was to enhance the life chances of children in Third World countries through the provision of books and libraries.  These are children who would otherwise be unable to develop their potential.  That simple truth was the catalyst for the formation of The Book Bus project in 2006 by founder, Tom Maschler, remembered as the publisher of Penguin, when he saw first-hand the sheer scarcity of books in the remote areas of Zambia that he was visiting.

The charity is now centred in Malawi, a country where only 5% of children receive a secondary education.  Marian shared a stark and inspirational example of how books can change lives by explaining how African boy, Kelvin Doe, invented a wind-powered electricity generator so that he would be able to read at home in the evenings.  It was Kelvin’s access to a book, helping him realise that simple but life-changing aim, that eventually led him to present at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 15-year-old and finally to embark on a PhD in the United States of America.

Marian was keen to show how the ethos of The Book Bus organisation was based on a desire to promote enablement through access to books and thereby foster independence and self-determination.  The children accessing the programme have their reading levels monitored and are assessed and measured against standardised attainment targets so that individual progress is a tangible, organisational outcome.  The annual cost of running the Malawian programme is a modest £15k and similar projects seek to achieve equally beneficial outcomes across Africa, Asia and South America.

To round off an inspirational and very affecting presentation, Marian shared a video of the wonderful work that The Book Bus organisation is currently undertaking.  For more information on this important and far-reaching initiative, please visit: www.thebookbus.org

Keynote Speaker: Simon Brett, OBE

After graduating from university, Simon started a long career in both radio and  television, but it is as a prolific writer of crime fiction that he is perhaps most well known.  To date he is credited with over 80 crime fiction novels, his work comprising favourite collections including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering, and Blotto & Twinks series.  Further to these much loved and intricately plotted books, Simon has also written successful non-series novels with his Shock to the System (1984) being produced as a film starring Michael Caine.

In 2014, in recognition of his lifetime achievement, Simon was awarded the Diamond Dagger for Crime Fiction and in 2016 he was invested with an Order of the British Empire.  Not bad for someone who started his working life as a Father Christmas in a London Department store!

The longevity and breadth of Simon’s success offers a wealth of practical  experience from which he can draw and from this he was able to relate valuable and grounded advice to new and seasoned scribblers alike.  Simon alluded to the idea that to choose to be a writer was by definition to choose a life, if not of loneliness, then solitariness.  For a large part writers have to be content in their own company while they create the worlds of fiction that their characters inhabit.

From Simon’s work in broadcasting – particularly his work in radio (a medium, he said, that lends itself particularly well to the writer)  – he found great inspiration for many of his story ideas and his future writing career.  His early adaptation of a Dorothy L Sayers ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ adventure was the catalyst that launched him into full-time writing.  Perhaps it was the levity to be found in Sayers’ prose style that was to become part of the wonderful signature humour that underpins much of Simon’s work.  And to this end Simon was keen to explain that writers should not be bound or stifled by the accepted norms of a chosen genre and that taking narrative risk was key to writing with originality while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of producing derivative material.  He was at pains to highlight the importance of giving characters dramatic moments and that these moments reward the reader as they progress through the story.

As a testament to Simon’s creative intellect,  he told the audience that involvement in the process of producing a first draft is where he finds the greatest artistic satisfaction; that while many writers toil over numerous re-drafts that approach wasn’t for him.

Simon’s presentation was packed with humour and anecdotes from his long and illustrious career.  The audience was treated to wonderfully informative practitioner’s advice communicated in a riveting and very entertaining raconteur’s after-dinner style.

M.J.Arlidge, James Marrison and John Hayes speak at HWS 8th September

A Night of Crime and Darkness…

Two purveyors of crime and mystery talked about how they weave dark and compelling tales.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

 

Special Guest – John Hayes

Sep 15 John Hayes_0234John Hayes is Smug! Winchester’s first satirical magazine Remember Viz, Mad and Punch? Well, it’s a bit like those. Smug is a mix of humour and investigative journalism backed up by in-depth research – people watching!

Hoping to launch in December 2015, Smug needs input. Spoof news stories, reports, short-stories, anything relevant to the prevention of Winchester disappearing up its own bottom! The deadline is ASAP. Even if it’s just a crazy idea, let John know at john@wfa.uk.com You should be able to find Smug in the Art Café on Jury Street – John owns it!

Also the very first announcement of the Winchester Short Film festival 2015. John is keen to pair up screenplay writers with directors so if you have an idea for a film of under 15 minutes contact him through the Winchester Short Film festival website http://www.winchestershortfilmfestival.com/submit by 15 October 2015.

In 2016 Winchester Short Film festival is going international! Next year films will can be up to but no longer than double the length of this years. There is also a new category for 2016 – Write a Short Script for any Genre. Entries need to be submitted by December 2015

 

Speaker:  Crime Writer, M.J. Arlidge

‘I am not a woman,’ says Matt Arlidge. One and a half years ago, it was his agent’s idea to submit the plan for DI Helen Grace as gender neutral. Four books later, the name has stuck.  Unfortunately for Matt, it is common misconception among his readers that as the main protagonist is a woman then so must the writer be.

It has become apparent to Matt that women are infinitely more interesting than men and that life for a woman is fraught with difficulty. He fully accepts that this is tragic for women. But, not so at all for fiction writers. Plus, it seems to be the time of the female crime solver. So, a female DI with a fetish for leather and motorbikes cannot fail to sell.

Matt admits to finding a story’s baddy more intriguing and so the characters of his serial killers come fairly easily. In a crime novel the denouement is the most important element. So Matt works backwards, meticulously planning and reworking the chapters as he goes. Then the fun part – playing with the characters.

Matt started out a junior story-liner working at the BBC on East Enders  before moving onto many happy years writing for Monarch of the Glen, he then moved into writing crime for independent television. This is when Eeny Meeny was born into a society controlled by reality TV. What if a serial killer was to ask the question – who should be evicted next?

MJ Arlidge is a writer of thrillers not police procedure, so he does not have deep contact with the police, in fact he confessed to making some of it up! The come-down after the action of the denouement is important to the reader – they need to ‘come back up for air’. It can also be used to lead into the next instalment.

It is important to remember that writing might be a craft, but publishing is a business. A publishing house is almost guaranteed to like a genre. They will also want to ensnare those readers for a long time, so a series is much more likely to grab their attention. ‘Don’t be shy.’ he says, ‘Think Big.’

A secret – Little Boy Blue, the prequel to DI Helen Grace, will be launched over the twelve days of Christmas in chunks. It will only be available in e-book and on Kindle.

Liar Liar by MJ Alridge was published on 10th September 2015 by Penguin.

James Marrison & M.J.Arlidge
James Marrison & M.J.Arlidge

Speaker: Crime Writer, James Marrison

Scary music, downloaded photographs, banging a tennis ball on the wall and strict routine all go into James Marrison’s writing day at his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He sets himself targets as most writers do. But, not word-count. He uses time. Rigidly! Have a break or a time when you ‘call it a day.’ And switch off; it is so important.

Plotting is James’ nemesis. He does it in his head which can mean that sometimes, he has precious little in the way of tangible evidence of work. But plotting is work and he has to remind himself that he has actually done a lot today. Agatha Christie, one of his favourite authors was a plotter. And she often hid her killer in the open – a friend or a colleague.

Characters definitely do lead the plot. He fell back on his own emotional experiences of living away from his home for the answers to his main protagonist DCI Guillermo Downes. Once Downes had been given a backstory, he burst into life.

James agrees, it is the unveiling of the killer that is the reader’s reason for choosing crime. But, the day-to-day frustrations of police investigations are pivotal to the plot. Essential information dumps must be handled with care. So, James weaves in the character’s traits, keeping the text interesting. He also has no continual contact with the police but their procedures are not difficult to discover – the internet can give you all the information you need.

In crime writing, pace is imperative. Steer clear of over-describing. Sweep everything along for the ride. Keep working up to that key action scene.

It wasn’t until he started doing it that he actually realised that writing was what he wanted to do. He became a journalist. He collected details of strange and grisly murders carried out by the most demented serial killers and published his findings.

Writing is a lonely job, but James is keen to stress that at times it is also crowded. His agent and editor are vocal and blunt, and he is able to rely on them. Doubt, however can be a destroyer if it is allowed to creep in. Until your work is finished – put publishing out of your mind.

The Drowning Ground  by James Marrison was published on 27th August 2015 by Penguin.

September 2015 Competition Winners

Write a Scene in which the Victim of the Crime is Found

Our adjudicator was Carl Major, of Waterstones, West Quay, Southampton, and although Carl was unable to be with us he said he thoroughly enjoyed reading all the entries. Carl’s criteria and adjudications follow:

“Firstly, I was very grateful for being asked to judge this competition. Booksellers – like book browsers – see a lot of books and read a lot of first pages. If a reader has got as far as reading the first few sentences of a book or scene it is worth considering the things they might be subconsciously weighing up about the writing and the writer. The main one must be ‘Is this a story or writer I am intrigued enough to commit money and (more importantly) time to reading?’ The temptation is to grab at the reader with a ‘hooking’ sensational opening or the imagined vividness of the first person. But often – for this reader, at least – it is a kind of confidence in the grasp of the writer and that could be a nice touch of humour, a willingness to trust the reader with a gradual revelation, a telling and interesting detail or simply some small grace of language or observation. I think the reader always wants to know that whatever horrors or twists the story may contain that they are in good hands and often it is the small detail of the writing rather than the sensational content that provides the reassurance. I felt the three winners here all absolutely knew that and put it firmly into practice. It is no small skill. In the case of these three writers I was disappointed that I only had 300 words and would happily have trusted them to lead me on into the world behind this scene.”

Carl’s Adjudication:

1st Place: David Eadsforth, (pseudonym Alec Russell) The Artist

“Extremely well-crafted. The unsensational language heightened the gruesome revelation. Much information about the place and personnel conveyed in passing – and a welcome levening of dark humour! My feeling was that I was in the safe hands of a writer fully in charge of their subject and style. I immediately wanted to know more and read on.”  

2nd Place: David Lea, Home to Roost

“Conjured the protagonist’s world in a few deft strokes. The mix of humour and grim detail of Jason’s job set up a scenario in which the discovery of a body was somehow of a piece with the violence of industrial farming. I valued the detail of this writing and the skill of the writer in allowing the content rather than the language to provide the sensational effect”.

3rd Place: Anne Eckersley, Too Soon to Die

“This piece intrigued me from the first mention of the missing street lights. I believed the scene I was seeing had a real social context. I felt certain that in this writer’s world murder victims, murderers and police would have a wider context of family, friends, society. The plausible weariness of our protagonist and the deft use of ironic humour sealed the deal. I wanted to read on.”

 

Highly Commended: Louise Morrish, Dogsbody

Highly Commended: Avril Stephenson, Untitled

 

Prizes and Awards:

The lucky winners each received two signed books by our main speakers, James Marrison and MJ Arlidge as well as certificates of adjudication by Carl Major.

Anne Eckersley, David Eadsforth & David Lea
Anne Eckersley, David Eadsforth & David Lea

1st Place: The Artist – Copyright © David Eadsforth, 2015

Detective Inspector Ian Chambers stepped out of his car and stared at the blank wall that comprised the front of the industrial unit.  Of all of the crime scenes he had been called to in his career, this would probably have been the least likely candidate.  Detective Sergeant Terman, who had been waiting by the entrance, now approached him.

“Good morning, Sir; sorry it was such an early call, but the shift here starts early…”

Chambers nodded and waved his subordinate to silence.

“Okay, okay; what have we got?”

Terman hesitated.

“Um, I think you just better see for yourself, Sir.”

Chambers shot him a dubious look.

“The last time you said that it was a naked curate with a plastic bag over his head and a noose around his neck…”

“This is a bit different, Sir.”

Terman led the way through the entrance and on to a series of huge doors, around which stood a number of men in white overalls.  Chambers nodded to the chief of the forensic team, a man in his fifties who wore a somewhat grim expression.

“Morning, Alfred; well, what have you got for me?”

Alfred Bingham did not reply, but instead grasped the huge lever that was placed on the front of the door and swung it open.  A gust of bitterly cold air hit Chambers’s face and Bingham indicated that Chambers should enter.  Chambers entered the huge refrigerator and stared at the vision before him.  In the centre of the chamber stood a huge block of ice, two meters square, and inside it was the naked form of a man, his arms and legs stretched out in an ‘X’.  Chambers was silent for a few seconds, then he turned to Bingham.

“Um, we’re not calling this suicide, are we?”

 

2nd Place: Home to Roost – Copyright © David Lea, 2015

Jason had started at 6:30, as he did every day during the holidays: out of bed by 5:45, cup of coffee, cereal, on his bike and away. No need of a wash because he had bathed very thoroughly the night before. He bathed very thoroughly every night, lying in the suds, knackered and dreaming while his mum and his sister watched the tele down stairs. He dreamed of a future when he wouldn’t have to work on Guy Featherstone’s farm, a future when he could afford a motorbike, or even a car. When he could afford some decent clothes.

When he could afford a girlfriend.

Girlfriends are costly.

Anyway, he smelled.

By 8 0’ clock he had almost finished the cleaning. The electric lights were on eighteen hours a day to give maximum laying time, so it was already hot. The hens were housed in rows of metal cages three tiers high, with three or four birds to a cage. Four long alleyways of birds, all shrieking and squalling and pecking. And shitting.  But Jason’s first job before the shit shifting was to remove the bodies – five or six a day. They were so bored and cramped and demented that they pecked each other to death. It usually started when one bird was laying an egg and the other birds pecked around the hole as the egg squeezed out. Jason wondered how they decided which one to attack. Perhaps they chose the weakest, like at school.

Although Jason was a loner, nobody messed with him.

He trundled the awkward, overloaded shit- machine to the trapdoor and pulled the lever to release its load onto the pile below.

It was then he noticed the leg, naked and white.

Except for the Argyll pattern sock.

And then it disappeared under the slurry.

 

3rd Place: Too Soon to Die – Copyright © Anne Eckersley, 2015

This tax year council savings and vandalism had turned off all street lights in Woodley, so just before midnight Longmoor Road was as dull as a dead man’s eyes.  But death in Jonas’ world rarely occurred in broad daylight.

The rain had stopped. Puddles the size of lakes and the stench of sewage its legacy.

Jonas shivered. He wasn’t cold, thick jumpers, waterproof trousers and heavy boots made sure of that.  Parking between two police cars he headed towards the motorway flyover. The noise of cars passing overhead amplified by the silence of the night.

Signs warned of danger of death from the electricity substation or the risk of prosecution from trespass although missing sections of fence provided easy access. The area had always attracted graffiti artists and the homeless who clearly ignored the signs too, but then rising water levels over the winter should have worried them more.

The police hadn’t bothered to open the gate and Jonas opted for the shorter route too. His phone’s torch helped him pick his way through floating debris to the blue and white tape stretched round the scene.

A tent had been erected at the river’s edge. A number of silhouetted figures were moving around. Jonas sighed. He would have liked to be alone to assess the scene before anyone demanded answers or foisted information on him. Those first few minutes were crucial. The position of the body. The arrangement of the clothes.  Seventeen series of Silent Witness had a lot to answer for. Nowadays everyone in the country was qualified to express an opinion.

A noise on his left made him spin. Suddenly he was face to face with four bundles huddled round a shopping trolley and several cardboard boxes who were watching his progress with evident interest.

 

In Conclusion:

The competition secretary, Jim Livesey, thanked everyone who had entered. Crime proved very popular as 18 entries were received, a good start to our new season.

The competition for October is to write a ghost story – 300 words and the adjudicator will be Carolin Esser-Miles, Medievalist, and Senior Lecturer, English Language, University of Winchester.

Please email your entries to the Competition Secretary, Jim Livesey competitions.hwsAThotmail.com by noon (BST) 1st October 2015. (Please replace AT with @)

Please read HWS Competition rules

September Competition Winners 2012

compBecky Bagnell of the Lindsay Literary Agency adjudicated the monthly competition which was to create an amateur detective in 250 words.

 

Competition Winners

1st place: David Eadsforth with Street Level

2nd place: Maddy Woosnam with All That Jazz

3rd place: Honey Stavonhagen with Hope Green -The Blind Detective

All winners received a signed copy of a PD James novel.
Celia Livesey won the prize draw for those members who renewed their HWS before the July 31st deadline.

June Competition Winners 2012

Lindsay Ashford presented the prizes to the competition winners. The first prize, a signed copy of The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

1st prize – Gill Hollands for Murder at the Palace.

2nd prize – Honey Stavonhagen.

Joint 3rd prize – Liz Wald and Paul Alexander Ayres.

 

Gill Hollands – Murder at the Palace  1st prize

Sitting back in the flickering firelight, James Cooper unclipped the chinstrap. He removed the heavy helmet, wishing he had never heard the word ‘Peeler’. The sight of all that blood had left his stomach churning, a sour taste in his mouth. Warming darned feet by the fire, he sucked a nip of scotch from the bottle, hoping for oblivion.
The scene replayed in his mind, the scattered limbs, the gibbering woman who had found them, the gruesome crimson sprays up the curtains. Something niggled. Why had the servants not heard a sound? How could everyone at Jezebel’s Palace have amotive?

© Gill Hollands 2012

 

Honey Stavonhagen – 2nd prize

Elsie screamed as she came stumbling into the parlour. I thought she was asleep. Last year she began walking at night; mumbling garbled sentences as she wandered aimlessly through the narrow attic corridors. This however, was different; it was early morning, the sun was streaming through the windows and landing in little puddles by her feet, Elsie was awake. Her usually calm pretty face was now contorted, pained even and I could sense fear, true terror. Her eyes bulging with tears, she pointed at the middle of the empty flagstone
floor. “He’s dead – look, there on the floor – he’s dead!”

© Honey Stavonhagen 2012

 

Liz Wald – joint 3rd prize

No one knew why Guy de Lucy left the warmth of his hall and wandered out into the icy night, but everyone knew he was dead the next morning.
The new spread quickly. Even men who had scorned his company in life were drawn by a morbid fascination to see him in death. Mauled by wolves, the gossips said.
Strange, then, that no one stopped to ask why his disfigured body was still intact – as if even the hungry beasts knew to avoid the tyrant’s company. Strange too that why, of all his body, only his ear was missing.

© Liz Wald 2012

 

Paul Alexander Ayres – joint 3rd prize

Isaac belted his oilskin and watched the villagers going downhill along the drove-way. ‘So, it’s over,’ he muttered, then continued to climb, kicking through the gorse, and cursing the thorns that drew blood below his cuffs. The horizon crept towards him. And there, on top of the downs, a silhouette appeared, as if some giant esoteric symbol had been sketched upon the skyline. As he approached it, Isaac saw the gentle sway of the body, and heard the soft creaking of the rope that was tied around his brother’s neck. He grinned lasciviously, and looked out over the valley. ‘Joshua,’ he murmured, ‘I can see your wife from here.’

© Paul Alexander Ayres 2012

Simon Hall – 11th October 2011

Following Simon Hall’s amusing talk,Writing Crime, Reporting Crime last evening at the University of Winchester, our Steering Committee thought you would like to have the following record of his advice for writing marketable crime fiction.

Simon Hall Advised Writers ‘ To Keep the Faith’

Simon Hall ‘s talk Writing Crime, Reporting Crime not only informed but entertained a capacity crowd of writers at the University of Winchester on Tuesday evening, 11 October at the second meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society.

His direct discussion of the techniques of crime writing informed writers how to use a strong protagonist to help solve the crime, the subtext to Simon’s tvdetective novels.. He demonstrated how Ben, his protagonist, as a tv reporter, is a mixture of highs and lows but that he is believable and memorable. His dog, Rutherford, adds another dimension to this character.

He reminded the audience how he uses his notebook to record the quirks that bring characters to life. He described a lady in a pub who rattled her empty glass as a signal to her obedient husband to return to the bar to replenish her drink and then nibbled food from her husband’s plate when he had left the table. ‘A character to weave into my plotline’.

As the BBC crime correspondent for the south east, he often works with the police to report crimes ‘These are often searing experiences’. He recalled being asked to report on the terrorist suicide attacks in London in 2005, to seeing the terror on the faces of total strangers as he approached the railways stations and his shock to see a police traffic sign with the words ‘Avoid London: Area Closed’!

He urged writers to be guided by their principles, that this leads to the ‘voice on the page’ and also to develop a relationship with the reader, to invest in their research and to provide all of the clues that are need to solve the crime satisfactorily. Aim for a plot with a series of twists and turns. ‘Readers want value for money…so do publishers’.

During question time he admitted that he writes ’nice crime: no difficult science, nor swearing, …which is an excuse for proper vocabulary, no gore but instead a worthy plot and no sex!

Settings are important as an angle on which to base a novel. He reminded listeners of Morse’s use of the city of Oxford and the multiple settings used by John Le Carre. Periods of history, travel, journeys, even personal tragedies are good starting points. ‘Humour takes us through tragedy’.

Simon Hall’s conclusion was that being a writer is not a God-given art…it takes much research, writing, editing and revision before you convince that commissioning editor and publisher. . We have the talent but it is important to work at it. ’Keep the Faith’!

We also remind you that Jack Sheffield, author of the Teacher Teacher series published by Transworld will give the next talk, Paperback Writer -The Journey Toward Publication on Tuesday , November 8th 7:30 pm, University of Winchester. We can promise you another hugely enjoyable and highly hilarious evening of advice and entertainment. Do come and bring your writer-friends. We want this society to be packed with talented writers.

With all good wishes for your writing success,
Barbara

PS You may like to take a look at Simon Hall’s blog about the event last night.