Archive for February, 2012

The relationship between books and the screen is often seen as some sort of competition. People argue that the novel is outdated.  It takes so long to read a book and a good film can achieve the same impact in a couple of hours. Defenders argue that few films are ever as good as the book they are based on, that a book fires the imagination far more than any film. Yet the two have so much in common and so much to learn from each other, in meeting changing expectations.

Before writing Avon Street, I did a short script-writing course in evening classes at Bath University. I’ve never subsequently written a script, yet I have tried to bring  to my writing some of things I learned on that course.

  • In judging a script, a film director/producer will often cover up the names of the characters down the left hand margin and see if they can recognise which lines are spoken by what character. The important lesson is that everyone speaks in a slightly different way. In any form of drama dialogue is part of what makes a character unique.
  • A scene is never static from a film camera’s perspective, just as our own perception is constantly changing. One second we are looking at a wide angle view, the next we focus on a small detail. Those shifting focusses are important in conveying atmosphere and setting, defining character, and in drawing the audience into the scene.
  • A scene is not just what we see, but also full of sounds, smells, tastes. A film maker tries to engage all the senses of the viewer, drawing them into the scene. But a film has actors, sound engineers, cameramen, lighting technicians to build those impressions. The writer has to fire a reader’s senses in different ways and yet remain mindful of these same techniques, playing with motion, light, angles of view, sound, smell, taste, and touch, trying to envisage how an actor would express the character’s emotions.
  • A film maker also recognises the power of silence in conveying mood and atmosphere. Sometimes what marks an exceptional actor out from others is how they perform when they are still part of the scene, yet not speaking. It’s difficult to convey silence in writing without losing the reader’s interest and yet it can be so powerful when it works.
  • A film plays with plot, pace and atmosphere by changing scenes and perspectives at regular intervals. We are taken from a cliff-hanger to a place of calm, from the main plot to a sub-plot. One minute we see the world from one character’s viewpoint, the next from another’s.  Those changes of scene and perspective have to run smoothly, almost imperceptibly – and they should always serve a purpose.
  • A film foreshadows what is about to happen or might happen, not only through story development and the careful release of information, but also more subtly through changes in mood and atmosphere. It is that building of anticipation that creates tension and pace, and maintains credibility in the plot.

A good film can be just as enjoyable and significant as a good book – and vice versa. They’re just different ways of telling a story. The important  part is the “good,” and even that means different things to different people.

Yet having said all that about what the writer can learn from films, it’s worth observing that Charles Dickens never saw a movie in his life, and yet he employed all these techniques and wrote novels that have provided the plots and characters of many successful screen adaptations. If he was writing now he would probably be writing scripts for “The Killing” or “The Wire” -and film makers would be fighting for the “screen-rights” to his latest block-buster novel.


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Painting by William Hardwick from Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Drownings in the River Avon were relatively common in Bath in the middle of the 19th Century. Many were accidental, or at least that’s what the Coroner’s Court often concluded. A substantial number though, were suicides. They were regularly reported as such in the local paper, but were rarely seen as newsworthy by the national press.

The people who had taken their own lives in the River Avon were for the most part un-newsworthy because they were usually poor. They were part of the nameless, faceless masses exploited by the Industrial Revolution, routinely marginalised and vilified in the press. Popular opinion was that they were lazy, ignorant and dirty; given to drinking too much, and begging, or they were itinerants, migrants without roots, who did not want to work and were content to live in squalor.

Yet it was in “The Times” newspaper archive that I first read of the incident that now forms the prologue to my book – an incident so tragic, abhorrent and pitiful that it was reported nationally. On Sunday 6th February 1850, in the early hours of the morning, Thomas Hunt drowned himself and his young daughter.  The Coroner’s Court determined that Hunt had taken his own life and found him guilty of the murder of his daughter.

I knew when I read the piece that I would include their story somewhere in my book. It seemed somehow to summarise the tragic lives of many who survived in the Avon Street area of Bath. It was the darkness and despair that existed at the heart of the city – the secret that was kept hidden behind the Georgian facades – the lie that lay behind the carefully contrived and protected image.

I had initially intended to use the incident as an anecdote somewhere in the book, perhaps brought up in conversation between the characters, but the story of Thomas Hunt and his daughter, would not leave me. Eventually it became a lynch pin, something that brought the characters together, or drove them apart. It played a big part in determining the plot and came to influence atmosphere and settings, as I tried to explore the two very different worlds that co-existed in the city.

There was nothing in the newspaper records to indicate that Thomas Hunt was in debt (as he is in my book) but debt and loan-sharks were a way of life for the working class at that time, as they are increasingly  now. Their story came almost to define what life must have been like for many of the residents of Avon Street and though prologues are unfashionable and may even put some people off reading a book, their story (or my interpretation of it) now forms the prologue of “Avon Street” – because that’s where it needs to be.

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In 1903 Britain was outraged by a  series of brutal attacks on horses, cattle and sheep  in Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. So frequent and sadistic were these night-time attacks that they were reported regularly in the national press.  Local people blamed a solicitor of “mixed race” by the name of George Edalji, claiming he organised the attacks as a part of ritualistic pagan worship ceremonies.

Edalji soon found himself at the centre of a “hate-mail” campaign. The police too began to receive anonymous letters pointing to him as the culprit and claiming that he was the leader of a  pagan sect. Early one morning  they mounted a raid on Edalji’s home and their suspicions were confirmed. In the house they found a damp coat and trousers each with a small blood stain on them. They also discovered horse-hairs on the coat and recovered a pair of muddy boots and four dirty razors with red staining.

The police arrested Edalji and he was quickly tried and found guilty at Stafford Assizes. He was  sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Yet despite his imprisonment, the animal attacks continued. A year after his trial a petition for his release, with over 10,000 signatures (including many lawyers) was sent to the Home Office. But the authorities would not relent and Edalji remained in prison until two years later. Then without explanation  he was suddenly released still carrying the stigma of  the “guilty” verdict.

Hearing of the case, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) decided to investigate and to re-examine the evidence. He found that:-

  • the blood-stains were too small in relation to the brutality of the attack,
  • the police notes taken at the time indicated that the coat was damp, yet the blood-stains were dried into the fabric and of some age
  •  the marks on the razors that were taken to be blood were simply rust, reflecting their age and lack of use
  • the horse-hairs on the coat were commonly used in stuffing furniture and could be expected to be found on most people’s clothing.

Conan Doyle had known from his meeting with Edalji that the man was innocent, just as Sherlock Holmes would have known. He used the same  observational and deductive skills as his fictional creation and it was plain to him immediately that Edalji had,

not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism.

With such bad eyesight Conan Doyle argued, how could Edalji on a moonless night have walked across miles of broken ground, climbed innumerable walls and found his way through gaps in hedges and walls to reach his prey.

Conan Doyle presented his evidence in “The Daily Telegraph” in January 1907. He traced the anonymous letters to a man called Robert Sharp and found enough evidence to publicly accuse him and his two brothers of the crimes.  One of the brothers immediately fled the country.

Under pressure of publicity, the Home Office agreed to review the case through  a three-man inquiry. One of  those men coincidentally, happened to be related to the Chief Constable who had undertaken the initial investigation.

Needless to say they upheld the original conclusion that Edalji was guilty and that the Sharp brothers were innocent. The Law Society though, exonerated Edalji and reinstated him as a solicitor and readers of “The Daily Telegraph” raised £300 for him to help with his legal costs – all on the basis of Conan Doyle’s investigation – which they trusted more than the judgement of the legal system.

Conan Doyle like his creation, Sherlock Holmes, believed in the primacy of hard evidence. He assessed that evidence dispassionately and objectively in the belief that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. The police and judicial system, on the other hand, had largely judged George Edalji long before he even came to trial, on the colour of his skin and local prejudice and rumour.

I think it’s fair to say that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived up to the example of his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes, not only in terms of his methods, but also in his belief in justice.

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Had Madame Rachael stuck to her true criminal vocation as a confidence trickster and charlatan, she might now be fondly remembered as the founder of a cosmetics empire. But Rachael got greedy and diversified into theft, blackmail and extortion.

Madame Rachael was an un-attractive, middle-aged, and rather coarse looking woman when she opened her first beauty salon.  But each line and wrinkle on her face had been hard earned, for Madame Rachael was actually Sarah Rachael Leverson, born into poverty in the North of England. She could neither read nor write, yet she was street-wise and bright enough to hide her roots.

Little is known about her past other than that she was married for a while to an apothecary’s assistant in Lancashire. Rachel moved to London in the late 1850s and sold old clothes for a while, and then fried fish, before dabbling in fortune-telling.

She must have done reasonably well, because she got together enough money to open a beauty salon in Mayfair. Rachael had learned a little about mixing chemicals from her former husband and she certainly had a flair for sales and marketing. She also had a personable and confident manner and a lot of “face.” Soon her parlour was the talk of Mayfair, yet it was bankrupt within a year. Perhaps Rachael’s lack of education let her down, or perhaps she was just under-capitalised, but she ended in the debtor’s prison.

For anyone else that might have been the end of the story, but Rachael was too persistent to give up.  As soon as she was released from prison she opened another salon in New Bond Street, with the slogan, “Beautiful for Ever.” No one knows where the money came from, nor given the fact that she could not write, who translated her ideas into the very effective advertising campaigns that she mounted.  The person who wrote the popular “house-magazine” promoting Madame Rachael’s exclusive beauty products, also remains a mystery.

By 1867 Madame Rachael had a handsome coach and pair, a house in Mayfair and retained a box at the Opera House at the cost of £400 per season. All this had been achieved by selling cosmetics, like the famous “Magnetic Rock Dew Water,”

“In the heart of the Sahara, or the Great Desert is a magnetic rock, from which water distils sparingly in the form of dew, which is possessed of an extraordinary property. Whether a latent electricity is imparted by magnetism, or an additional quantity of oxygen enters into its composition, it is not easy to say. But it appears to have the property of increasing the vital energies…and it gives the appearance of youth to persons of considerable antiquity. This water is brought to Morocco on swift dromedaries for the use of the court, and its virtues are much extolled by their physicians.”

Madame Rachael had also bought additional adjoining properties by then and was offering “Arabian Baths” and various health and spa treatments. Then she diversified further, offering rooms for “extra services” and private rooms for “dangerous liaisons” which were also highly lucrative until she began stealing jewellery from her patrons and blackmailing them over their clandestine meetings.

In the end, Madame Rachael ended up back in prison – if only she’d stuck to marketing fake beauty products she might have been a millionaire and her Cosmetics Empire might still be with us. Many of her marketing ideas certainly still are.

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It’s finally arrived. I opened the parcel this morning, and there it was – my book – “Avon Street”  Seeing the cover, holding the book, thumbing the pages, it all felt suddenly real and I finally allowed myself to feel excited.

I had known for months that “Avon Street” was going to be published. After all, I had signed a contract, checked the proofs seen it for sale on Amazon, Waterstones, and the Guardian Bookshop. Yet still it hadn’t felt real, or at least I hadn’t allowed myself to get too excited. You see, there had been publishers before, contracts signed; it had even been listed on Amazon, yet in the past things had gone wrong at the last moment and the book never made it to the bookshops. It’s a difficult industry, publishing.

There were years before that too, when writing was confined to reports and studies; policy documents and business strategies. Writing a novel was just a dream then, but now it is a reality. The “effort” was always worthwhile, even before I thought I had a chance of being published. I love writing, whatever form it takes. Yet now, seeing my book sitting there on the table, I can’t resist the smile that keeps insisting on taking over my face.

I am no longer  Unpublished Writer, but a Published Author. To be honest it’s hard to take in, but all in all it feels great.

And to any Unpublished Writer who reads this, the two lessons I’ve learned are to keep trying and exploring publishing opportunities – but more importantly – Keep Enjoying Writing.

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A more horrible or revolting crime than this bombardment of Canton has never been committed in the worst ages of barbaric darkness.”

“The Morning Herald”

The wealthier classes in Victorian England had an almost insatiable demand for tea, silk, porcelain, and manufactured goods. Much of this came from China, but unfortunately the Chinese, a very independent nation, did not need much that the English had to trade. That is until enterprising minds in the East India Company thought of trading opium from India.

The Chinese banned the import of the drug, but the East India Company bribed their way past officials and smuggled it into the country. Quantities increased from 5,000 chests in 1820, to 16,000 chests in 1830, each chest containing about 70 Kilos. It became a major problem in the country as the number of users grew and their consumption increased. The trade increased and though outlawed, went largely unchecked until the Chinese government appointed an official called Lin Tse-hsii to deal with the problem.

Lin got rid of the corrupt officials who were allowing the Opium into the country.  He closed down supply lines and arrested pushers. In 1839 the British Traders found themselves with 20,000 chests of unsold Opium, on their store-ships and warehouses in Canton. Lin seized the opium and destroyed it, described by a Western traveller and writer of the time (H. Wells Williams) as follows:-

“The opium was destroyed in the most thorough manner, by mixing it in parcels of 200 chests, in trenches, with lime and salt water, and then drawing off the contents into adjacent creek at low tide.”

Lin wrote to Queen Victoria asking her to stop the Opium trade. He argued that since the consumption of Opium had been banned in England because of its harmful effects, it should not be exported to other countries. But despite Lin’s pleas the trade continued, and when a fleet of Chinese junks tried to block the English Merchant vessels in November 1839 Britain declared war on China, and so began the first “Opium War“.

British warships sailed up the Yangtse and imposed a blockade on anyone trying to trade with China. They sunk Chinese ships, bombarded forts and ports with artillery and dropped landing parties of troops on the mainland. Better armed and better trained the British army inflicted heavy losses. An Englishman who saw the fighting in Canton said,

 “Field pieces (cannon) loaded with grape(shot)  were planted at the end of long, narrow streets crowded with innocent men, women and children, to mow them down like grass till the gutters flowed with their blood.”

The Times correspondent reported  that in one engagement,

“half an army of 10,000 men were in ten minutes destroyed by the sword or forced into the broad river.”

The war lasted until 1843 when under the Treaty of Nanking, China was forced to pay $6 million dollars for the destroyed Opium, to pay millions more in “reparations,” to open up 5 “treaty ports” for the exclusive use of the British and to hand over Hong Kong as a colony. The war on drugs in China was lost as soon as the Treaty was signed. By 1879 China was importing 6,700 tons per annum, and by 1906, China was producing 85% of the world’s opium.

Back in England, though opium was illegal, it was commonly used throughout much of the 19th century to adulterate cheap beer and was routinely prescribed by doctors for complaints such as sleeplessness, bad stomach, depression and nervousness. It was also the main ingredient of the many popular “tonics” of the time, bought over the counter in any chemist or available from the local patent medicine seller. As Richard, one of the characters (a doctor) in my book  “Avon Street” says:-

Half the city takes “Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” or some other concoction of opium and cannabis to help them feel better…They feel better because half of the time they are walking around in a dream.

There can be little doubt that Victorian Britain was the most successful drugs cartel in History.

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On the bi-centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens it seems appropriate to write a piece on plots and plotting.  Dickens gave us some of the most memorable characters in Fiction, the most popular being (according to a Penguin Books poll) Ebenezer Scrooge –


But Dickens also left us with plots that have become almost part of the U.K.’s  and even International, folk-lore. The many screen and TV adaptations prove, if any proof was needed, the power of his story-telling. We watch the stories unfold on screen though many know them and their endings already. New generations discover the tales and find that they still have something to say over a hundred years after they were written.

Dickens knew what his readers wanted from him and he always delivered, yet not always in the ways they expected.  “The Old Curiosity Shop” was written in the form of a newspaper serial. In America, fans of the story waited at the piers in New York City harbour, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last instalment in Britain) “Is Little Nell alive?” Popular demand was that she should live and find happiness, yet Dickens had her die, just when her rescue from poverty seemed certain. Lucie Manette never returns Sydney Carton’s love in “A Tale of Two Cities” and the hero dies on the guillotine, but not before saying,

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Dickens was master of the “Ironic Plot” where the hero/heroine fails to achieve what they are seeking (the happy ending that the reader wants).  Yet in the process the character always achieves true heroism and leaves their world a better place.

Here are some other plotting ideas I found helpful in deciding on how to tell the story of “Avon Street.”  They may not be of much help in writing the initial story, but they were helpful to me in going through the many edits and re-writes. Dickens, of course needed no such guidance.

  • The plot begins before the story starts – wherever possible the story should begin as near as possible to the crisis point, the time when circumstances change and the train of events that follow is set in motion. Back-stories and depth of character can all be developed later, but the reader has to be drawn in from the beginning.
  • Challenge and Conflict – The plot usually involves characters facing adversity. Each character must meet those challenges in a believable way, behaving in keeping with they way they have been drawn, rather than suddenly becoming a super-hero.
  • Nothing is Random – Each character, setting, and piece of dialogue should be significant in terms of advancing the plot, establishing roles, defining motivations, creating atmosphere, conveying theme or fore-shadowing what might happen.
  • Plot is Many Stories in One – Even minor characters have a story to tell, or why are they there? The plot should generate and feed off sub-plots to maintain the reader’s interest when the main plot is slowing and to develop the characters that the sory depends on.
  • Foreshadow but don’t Predict – The arrival of major events or characters shouldn’t just happen “out of the blue.” Too many coincidences strain belief. The trick is to warn the reader, but subtly enough that when it happens it is still a surprise.
  • Plot is Character in Motion – Events and relationships, as the story progresses, are all opportunities to test the characters, to show how they react and to reflect their emotional journey – a good opportunity for the famous “show don’t tell.”
  • Hero in Charge – At times in the story the main Characters should lose control of events, otherwise the story is boring. But towards the end they have to demonstrate that they are taking back that control, or at least trying to, before the final challenge.

These aren’t rules – more things to be aware of.  I can’t pretend that I used them much in writing the first draft of “Avon Street.” They were though very helpful as “touch-stones,” or reference points when I came to re-write and edit.

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