The sea, the sea #killerfest15

Category: Author Post

A few thoughts about the importance of setting in Mindsight

We’d reached the Old Town, huddled between two hills, and the gulls were circling over the boats drawn up on the shingle and the tall, black net huts where the fishermen stored their gear.

Mindsight is about memory, guilt, loss and above all about a search for the truth and I didn’t have to think too hard about where to set the story. I live in Hastings, on the south coast of England, and it seemed the ideal retreat for Clare when she’s released from prison. She wants to be in a place where no one knows her, where she can walk up and down hills until she’s exhausted and where the sight and sound of the sea may help to ease her pain.

I love the sea and as I was writing I realised it was becoming almost an extra character. Like memory and human relationships, the sea is unpredictable. On a warm summer’s day it can be wild, with white peaks of foam racing and churning, and yet there are times in midwinter when it’s a tranquil sheet of brilliant blue. At night it becomes a mysterious void: a dark emptiness that can still be heard as it whispers or roars, tumbling to the shore. It’s invisible but impossible to ignore, just like Clare’s buried memories.

A single light shone in the black absence of the sea: a boat moving slowly through the nothingness, night fishing.

The town of Hastings plays an important part in Clare’s story too. It’s often portrayed as a down-at-heel seaside resort, but long before the pier, the amusement arcades and the fair were built it was a working fishing port. And so it remains. The Old Town is a huddle of crooked houses where gulls shriek as they circle above the fishing boats drawn up on the shingle and the black weather-boarded huts that sell the catch straight from the sea. The streets nestle between two hills, each with its Victorian funicular railway clanking up to a wide grassy space with spectacular views of the town, the ruined castle and the English Channel.

Although Clare was hoping to remain anonymous, she discovers that the natives are very friendly, which was something that struck me too when I moved here. Idiosyncratic, bohemian and with an incredible zest for life, many of the locals are artists, musicians and writers. Hardly a month goes by without some kind of festival or celebration, whether it’s for the herring harvest, for May Day or to defend the world record for the largest number of people dressed as pirates. So it’s a place that feels positive about life, which is what Clare needs.

But of course Mindsight is a crime novel and when gales blow up or the sea mist descends Hastings can take on a darker mood. Stories are told about gruesome murders committed by smugglers and about fishermen lost at sea. In last year’s storms huge rocks crashed from the cliffs onto the beach where people had walked not long before and walls and roofs were ripped from houses. The narrow lanes, that the locals call twittens, are picturesque during the day, but they take on a Dickensian gloom when night falls.

The perfect setting for a crime novel, in other words.

Blog by Chris Curran

Latest book: Mindsight

Plot, plot, plot #killerfest15

Category: Author Post

There’s a great little story (probably apocryphal) about an American screenwriter, who told his family that when he died, he wanted this epitaph chiselled into his gravestone: At Last, A Plot.

Why does the anecdote resonate, especially with anyone who has tried to write fiction, especially thrillers? Because, after a few years in the business, you realise the fierce truth: in the end it all comes down to plot. To narrative. To Story. Plotting is to writing as melody is to music: find a good tune and you can sit back and reap the royalties. But good tunes are rare, and so are good plots. Hence the bittersweet yearning of that screenwriter’s epitaph.

Put it that way and the fundamental importance of plot seems obvious. Yet it took me several years, heck, several decades, of writing largely unplotted (and fairly unsellable) literary fiction before I realised that I needed, first of all, a good solid story. Then I should concentrate on the other stuff: characters, locations, nice sentences.

My epiphany came in two stages. First I read Robert McCrum’s excellent biography of P G Wodehouse, in which he revealed that Wodehouse would spend months agonising over a plot, and then, when that job was done, Wodehouse could write the book itself in three weeks. Reading Wodehouse’s comic masterpieces it is not obvious, at first glance, that they are carefully plotted; but dig deeper, and you see that of course they are. Beneath the effortless comic prose the plot is working away, unseen – like brilliant yet silent machinery. Without those plots Wodehouse’s novels would be just a series of gags, and not half as readable.

My second revelation came when I read The Da Vinci Code  – and really enjoyed it. I had foolishly expected, given its reputation, to find the dialogue stilted and the prose trite and the love interest ludicrous, and yes, those accusations were halfway true – but they also didn’t matter.

Fifty pages into the book I couldn’t care less about the unbrilliant prose style because I was entirely hooked on the story. Dan Brown was reeling me in, with his chapter-ending cliffhangers, his curious and diverting puzzles, and all those devious narrative twists. Sure, The Da Vinci Code is not War and Peace or Ulysses, but it does not aim to be: what it aims to be is a damn good story, well told, which it is. Hence its success.

And that success, born of good storytelling, did not come easy: Dan Brown took infinite pains to get his plot right, even hanging himself upside down, in the doorway of his study, when he was trying to disentangle some glitch in his narrative (apparently the rush of blood to the head assisted the process).

Ever since these twin insights, as a novelist I’ve always tried to nail the plot, first of all, when writing a thriller. Whether I have succeeded is for others to decide, but I know one thing. I really don’t want my epitaph to be: At Last, A Plot.

Blog by S K Tremayne

@thomasknox

Latest book: The Ice Twins