Something that tends to come up in critiques is that the viewpoint character isn’t sufficiently involved, that they are not in danger, that they don’t have enough at stake. I see where this is coming from. If the viewpoint character doesn’t care what happens, why should the reader? But the character may care very much, without being in personal danger. And  one can surely write from the viewpoint of a character who is unsympathetic, and then why should one care what happens to them anyway?

Then you have the classic detective story. OK, maybe the hard-boiled private eye, who generally gets knocked on the head so often they must have serious brain damage after a few years in the business, and is motivated by getting paid, has something at stake – not only the pay, but the likelihood of getting bumped off.

The police detective is presumably also motivated by getting paid, but they don’t have to be personally involved in solving the case, generally it’s surely better if they’re not. And surely, also, the chances of getting bumped off are relatively low.

And then Sherlock Holmes – the model of all disinterested detectives – granted there are a few stories in which Holmes and or Watson is attacked, but there are a lot more where they’re not. There are quite a few where it turns out no-one’s in danger at all. Solving the mystery is the object of the exercise. What Holmes has at stake is his reputation and intellectual satisfaction; Watson, the usual viewpoint character, most often has nothing at stake at all.

There are many detective stories where someone has something at stake – they are suspected, or accused, or even convicted, and want their name to be cleared. But almost by definition, they’re usually not the main viewpoint character. There is the scenario where a murderer must be tracked down before they kill again – but the detective is not often the most likely next victim.

I have wondered if this insistence on personal jeopardy is responsible for one of the things that irritates me most about many recent detective stories that I’ve read. The detective, amateur or professional, has to be assaulted at least once, possibly several times. They must be in danger of death at some point. Frequently because they have taken the murderer somewhere quiet to tell them they are a suspect. Sometimes to the top of a tall building. I mean, what??? I’m sorry, can you see Holmes or Miss Marple doing that?

And then there was the successful series of crime thrillers that I started reading and enjoyed, only for my suspension of disbelief to finally snap as, increasingly, every crime the investigator had to deal with seemed to be aimed at her or her friends and family. And after a bit, every crime anywhere, whether in her jurisdiction or elsewhere. All crime was part of a conspiracy against her friends and relations. That isn’t what I’m looking for in a detective story. I want an interesting mystery, preferably with a not-too-sympathetic villain, who is unmasked by a detective who is there for their detective abilities, and not because their private life is the target of every villain in Christendom and beyond.

I fear, however, I am a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Pass the locusts.

Comet Weather is a totally brilliant book, a grown-up version of the sort of book I liked best as a child. Liz Williams is also totally brilliant, and entirely grown-up.

milfordsfwriters

book_comet_front_2dMilford: First of all, Liz, could you please give us a very quick introduction to Comet Weather.

Liz: It’s the only novel I’ve ever written which is set in contemporary Britain. It’s set partly in Somerset, where I live, and in London and Wiltshire. The plan, however, is to write 4 novels, all of which are set in the Southern counties of England. Although I come from a Welsh and Scots background, I feel that a lot of Celtic mythology has been mined to death and there is so much folklore and myth in Southern England – in the West Country, and counties such as Hampshire and Dorset, that it would be interesting to explore it.

Milford: In the last two decades you’ve had fourteen or so novels published, as well as a couple of novellas, short stories and short story collections encompassing both science fiction and fantasy, but this…

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Those who know me at all well will be aware of my deep-seated and passionate loathing for the education system, at least in England – I hope it is better in other cultures, and I’m fairly sure there are some where it does not inculcate a contempt for intelligence. Where else is the word “clever” an insult?

One thing that riles me is the assumption that the only way to become educated and knowledgeable and civilised is to stay at school for years and years.

I left school at sixteen, my sister and parents left school at sixteen. We were about as educated, civilised, intelligent, knowledgeable and well-read a family as I have ever met. My grandparents left school well before sixteen, the three I knew were also intelligent, knowledgeable and well-read. All of us could follow a logical argument, and behave in a rational way. We all read books for pleasure. None of us was stupid, coarse, brutal, or wilfully ignorant. My parents gave me a thorough grounding in poetry and Christian theology, which neither of them studied formally. My mother’s father was an engineer’s patternmaker, an immensely skilled job I couldn’t do in a million years – he did an apprenticeship. My father was a chartered accountant – he started at sixteen as an articled clerk.

Somewhere the idea got in that everyone must go to university – whether or not that style of learning was what they were suited to, whether or not their particular talents were served by that route. I would not argue against the idea that everyone should have the chance to go to university – which now is becoming more difficult, as it is so expensive again. But if a person’s talents or temperament are better served on some other path, that should be an equal option, and equally respected.

I sometimes think I might have been more successful if I had taken a degree, in so far as it would have changed people’s perception of me. I also think I might have gone terminally round the bend. But I don’t really think I would have been more intelligent or generally well-informed. (Those who know me are free to argue to the contrary…)

There is a point after which you can only educate people with their consent and co-operation. There is also a point after which you cannot stop people acquiring education, short of locking them up away from all sources of information, and even then they will go on thinking. And that point generally occurs before they are twenty-one, or even eighteen.

I have dear friends with a university education. I have dear friends with none. I perceive no consistent difference in their intelligence or all-round awareness and knowledge of things in general. If a person’s calling is to be a surgeon, they should be given every facility. If their calling is to be a street-sweeper, likewise. Streets need sweeping, and to assume only stupid people can do it is really rather insulting.

My brain is on strike at the moment, but revisiting some old poems. This is a villanelle, if I remember rightly

Gifts

In my fingers, in my lips,

lie powers of healing and of sleep;

peace is at my finger-tips.

 

When sorrows salt the sun eclipse,

coolness for your heat I keep

in my fingers, in my lips.

 

In the healing river dips

bitterness too sere to weep;

peace is at my finger-tips.

 

Balm to soothe the sting of whips,

oil the troubled waves to sweep,

in my fingers, in my lips.

 

Lonely passion burns the lips,

love unloved and longing leap –

peace is at my finger-tips.

 

When your foot with fainting slips,

seek for healing and for sleep

in my fingers, in my lips;

peace is at my finger-tips.

 

(Marion Pitman)

Ben Jeapes is always entertaining

milfordsfwriters

Originally posted on Ben Jeapes’ blog

HM StarshipGo to the book’s home page

Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion … and approached it … and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.

Placing it with a publisher was quite atypically easy. Two friends from my writers group already shared an agent, Robert Kirby. Robert had been sufficiently tickled by their descriptions of the group to ask if he could have first refusal if any of the rest of us ever wrote a novel. I sent His Majesty’s Starship to him in August 1995…

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I enjoyed this, you might too

milfordsfwriters

Originally posted on Ben Jeapes’ blog on 10th December 2018

Like me, Babylon 5 was also on a mission to do right what Star Trek got wrong. Its key innovation was the story arc – the idea of an overall plot across the entire series that would take many episodes to unfold. Nowadays it’s almost unknown for a series not to have an arc. Babylon 5 gave us a universe of consequences – if a character broke a leg in one episode, they were on crutches in the next. In one episode a fighter pilot was killed and the closing shot was of Commander Sinclair composing a letter of condolence to the next of kin. Humans in Babylon 5 were a minority species, one among many, as opposed to the apartheid-like setup of Trek in which humans are clearly the minority yet equally clearly in charge of almost everything…

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via How (Not) to Write a Steampunk Novel by Gaie Sebold