Friday, 22 September 2023

The influence of Dunnett


The years prior to 1960 provided pretty solid reading in the historical fiction department of public libraries: Elizabeth Byrd’s Immortal Queen in 1956, followed by Serge et Anne Golon in 1957 with Angelique: The Marquise of the Angels. I had taken Game of Kings (1961) from the library for my mother to read, and when she handed it back to me with the words, “You will enjoy this,” she had no idea what she was doing.

I read it with growing delight because suddenly dialogue was not sprinkled with forsooth and pray, my lord, and pages were not filled with exposition and political backstory, nor was there any head hopping which was common back then. Instead, intelligent conversation that often had a sharp and witty edge to it. She had me hook, line and sinker by the time Buccleugh “stopped listening and went for a crowbar” in Chapter 1.

I looked for other books like it and found very few, if any. Like Dorothy Dunnett, I dallied with the idea of filling the gap by writing a book myself but hung back, unsure that I could do it.
Work and bus travel took up a lot of time, and relationships with the opposite sex were important, but the idea sat in the back of my mind all through the publication of the six Lymond novels. I studied her writing, and loved how she was precise in her use of grammar.

There was never any doubt over who was speaking or thinking, as there often is today in popular novels. I also liked the way she broke up long sentences – introducing three words, adding the dialogue tag and then completing the sentence. She didn’t always use dialogue tags, but action tags did the job superbly.
Her settings were so real that one holiday in France my husband and I trudged around Blois on a very hot day tracking the Dame de Doubtance to her lair on the Rue de Papegaults. We did something similar with the drum tower of Amboise and the traboules of Lyon, and the cisterns of Istanbul.

The characters Dunnett creates are unforgettable and almost real. Like everyone else I checked the history of the “real” characters and MacBeth from King Hereafter became the starting point for my first book in which a certain Daveth mac Finlay allies with Thorfinn to secure the throne of Alba.
Margaret Douglas became my next focus and the Scottish Queen Trilogy has dear Meg as a major player in her struggle to stay safe and achieve a secure marriage. Dunnett has her as an evil influence on Lymond, but once I read her life story, I understood Meg walked a tightrope her entire life. It began with her mother, who chose to stay with her son, the future King of Scotland, and handed Meg over to her father the Earl of Angus, whose lands had been confiscated by the Crown.

Dragged up by Douglas relatives all over the borders until her aunt Mary (Henry VIII’s sister) invited her to the English court, Meg had no one to rely on when Aunt Mary died in 1533. Desperate to marry, she was thrown in the tower when Henry discovered her affairs. Without heirs himself, he did not want Meg to marry and have children who could very well claim the crown. She was, after all, his niece and the granddaughter of Henry VII. He was a very real influence on her life choices.

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Endings are difficult

The biggest fault with story endings is when they are predictable.

How often have you heard someone say, “It was good but I guessed the ending by page 5?” Good stories have the reader guessing right up to the end.

Not all plots come together as well as Maass would have us believe: he says inner (emotional) and outer climaxes (plot related)must come together at the same time. The writer may forget the emotional slant in the rush to the end, and that is a mistake. It can also be overdone. There are one or two Jack Reacher scenes where I think, oh for Heaven’s sake, get on with it!

Maass recommends making failure look likely, too. Everybody, except maybe Jack Reacher, has doubts.

Snyder uses the phrase A whiff of death, or All is Lost, and says this must occur in every thriller before the final moment.

Fiction genres come with predetermined expectations. Romances, for example, usually have a nice, happy, upbeat ending with Hero and Heroine in a happy-ever-after-clinch. Mysteries and thrillers depend on plot twists that keep readers turning pages to find out who done it, or why. “Expect the unexpected” is the motto here. Open or unresolved endings are not good in this genre. The reader wants to know if the murderer goes to prison, escapes, or dies trying? Was the truth uncovered?

Tuesday, 5 September 2023

Mixed genres

Me in days of yore
 Nearly finished the wip.

Except that the word count is not what I want it to be. 

The main protagonists didn't get it together in the way I wanted when I started out. In fact they didn't get it together at all. And I haven't written the final chapter yet.  Why haven't I? Because I can't decide what the ending is.

This isn't a historical romance. In that genre, it is usually pretty easy to decide when the end is actually the end. But my current experiment is perhaps a cozy mystery, or perhaps a gentle police procedural (if such a thing is possible) or maybe just a murder mystery. I guess the end is when the murderer confesses all and the reader knows "whodunnit."

Alongside all that, there are the usual editing moans of glitches and typos, double spaces instead of single and three periods instead of one, never mind the comma and the full stops splattering the  the whole thing. 

All that plus the usual misspellings, plot holes and characters misnamed. It's a this point where I long to move onto something else, something new and different because to be honest, I'm bored with reading and re-reading searching for things to correct. I'm bored with making the hero more romantic and wondering if I've got my genres mixed up. Is it possible to mix genres?  Mash-up romance and thriller? Doubt it.

The only answer is to get on and finish the thing. Then I can be free of it ....

Thursday, 24 August 2023

To tag or not to tag?

 What do other writers think of Dorothy Dunnett?

You may or may not have heard the name, but she wrote several historical series that garnered many, many fans.
Check out this link: The Writers’ Writer – Dorothy Dunnett Centenary ( and find out. You will find my comments there along with a dozen or so others.

They make interesting reading. Currently I am going through my latest wip and trying to tie up all the loose ends. The easiest thing in the world is to add "said "after every line of dialogue, but oh! it does make for boring reading. 

So now I have struck out many of those dreaded words and let the dialogue stand alone, or I have add an action tag to make life interesting. Often I tie two separate sentences together to make one graceful, more interesting sentence. It seems when I'm writing the first draft I go for the simplest language and often employ phrases like "and then she...."

Not good. Second time is when the editing brain goes into action and re-writes all those awkward constructions. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2023

Never use a verb


“Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

I saw Elmore Leonard’s piece about creative writing and liked the sentence so much I read the rest. (I have read it before and agree with most of it.) Other authors say similar things, and sometimes they way they say it is entertaining.

It took me a while to know when I needed to use the verb “said” at all. So many times, particularly if only two characters are in the scene, the tag is not needed. I think I’ve got it now.

Sometimes I long to go back and re-edit all my earlier titles, but will have to stay as a record of my learning process. Ten times 70k words is 7ook and to read through that lot with a correcting pen would take maybe longer than I still have on earth!

Tuesday, 8 August 2023

Time to take note

 Do workshops help writers write?

The one given by Mari Hannah helped me.

She writes Police procedurals/crime fiction, and since that is the genre I have recently decided to attempt, I just had to attend. It would have been criminal not to! There was much good information and I saved her talk, and think this is worth taking about: she mentioned four things that she advises everyone to do: 

Keep a timeline. It is so easy to lose track of things and exactly when they happened. I came home and starting reading my own work from the start. Glad I did, for I found several instances where I'd got things a) repeated or b) out of sequence.  So now I follow Mari's advice and keep a timeline on a separate document.

I n my read through I also looked for what she calls "a raised action." Evidently police keep a log of every order/question and someone is in charge of that sheet.  When I went through my story - you can guess I found orders I had directed someone to do and then forgotten about them.

A Setup/Payoff sheet. This sits next to the Raised Action sheet, possible on the same document. in my pc. Things discovered in the investigation go in here so they are not forgotten or worse - ignored!

The fourth list she recommended I already do, and I suppose most writers have a character list. How detailed you wish to make it is up to you. I like to note hair and eye-colour so I don't have to sit and try to remember what I said about the character the first time I mentioned them.

So thank you to Mari for an excellent talk. Much appreciated.

Tuesday, 1 August 2023

A deadly place


Odd to read that someone who vanished thirty-seven years ago has been discovered on a thawing glacier near the Matterhorn. He failed to return from a hike in September 1986. In June this year climbers crossing the Theodul Glacier “discovered human remains along with several pieces of equipment.”

Even odder to think that it is an area where we’ve skied many times over the last thirty years, though I don’t think we were in any danger of skiing exactly where he died. I hope not, though we must have been pretty close. It seems the melting ice is bringing lots of bodies to the surface. Otzi the iceman was just the first!

We were in Zermatt in January this year and we walked a lot around the village but we did not venture up into the high mountains. Our days of tearing down mountainsides at high speed are well and truly over but I have to say there is nothing quite like it - and the memories of a beautiful and possibly deadly place remain so very clear.

The influence of Dunnett

  The years prior to 1960 provided pretty solid reading in the historical fiction department of public libraries: Elizabeth Byrd’s Immortal ...