Thursday, 19 June 2014

Forward Planning

I like to plan my novels in some detail. The strategy worked in my favour when I designed a wonderful character for my novel, The Gallows on Warlock Hill. I planned that she would start out with the appearance of being particularly unlikeable, but would end up as the story’s real heroine. It was partly a case of the character changing her behaviour as the story progressed, and partly a case of the reader misjudging her at the start. Showing a change in her behaviour as the book progressed wasn’t easy because it had to be believable. In order to make it convincing, and keep to the story I wanted to tell, I had to enforce a tight rein on the girl’s actions all the way through the book. I allowed her to break into tantrums when the plot demanded it, allowed her to misbehave atrociously when the plot demanded it, and I allowed her to lower her guard when the time came to reveal the real person behind the mask. Most importantly, I had to carefully plan the chapters in which the various behaviour changes would occur. The changes the reader sees in that character had to come about not too soon and not too slow. There was no room for reliance upon hope and good luck. The book would not have worked had I allowed the development to occur randomly.
I had to keep to my well-defined chapter-by-chapter structure when I wrote that manuscript, and yet the story is alive with raw emotion. Don’t be lured into believing that a tightly-plotted novel will be short on human feelings. They will exist, but they will come to the surface when the writer’s plan dictates, not when the character (or the writer’s sub-conscious) dictates.
If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself what sort of theatre play would you prefer to see? One in which the characters make up the story as they go along? Or one in which they follow the script? For myself I’d prefer the one with a prepared script and a cast who act in the way the director demands. But, you may choose to do things in a different way and I respect your right to do that. After all, it’s your novel.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Successful novelists are not born with a special talent. They take the time and effort to learn how to do it. And they keep practising their skills because success is earned, not given freely.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

One thing I admire in Bernard Cornwell’s novels is the way he is able to merge his fictitious characters – especially Richard Sharpe – into real events. And that’s what I have aimed to do in the second of my WW1 novels. In this case the background is the First Battle of Ypres, October 1914, and the real event is the 2nd Worcester Regiment’s counter-attack on Gheluvelt Chateau. It was a war-changing piece of bravery. With around 350 men, all he had left, Major Hankey launched his assault over one thousand yards of open ground. They lost one hundred men at that point, but the attack continued. Around one thousand German reservists panicked and fled from the scene, and a crucial breach in the British line was plugged. It’s the sort of action Richard Sharpe might have revelled in, had he been alive at that time. Instead, it was one of my fictitious protagonists who went forward with the Worcesters. The first draft of the novel is complete, and so is the first edit, but there is a lot more to do before the book is published.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Logical but not Obvious

The plot line in your novel should be logical, but not always obvious. For example, in my novel, King’s Priory, I needed to kill off a young wartime WAAF called Peggy Higgins. Logic told me it should happen in the London Blitz. But not in an obvious way.
When the raid begins Peggy and her mum are hiding in a cellar. Both are frightened as I build up the tension. Bombs land nearby and the tension increases. The house next door takes a direct hit.
More tension.
The house above Peggy and her mum begins to crumble.
More tension.
Can Peggy survive the raid?
The reader is left to wonder what will happen next. Then… yes, Peggy can survive. The next morning she and her mum crawl from the rubble. The tension eases. Peggy meets her dad, an ARP warden. He has survived the night.
The tension eases further.
Peggy is told to go to her aunt’s house and make a cup of tea. Relief all round. But I am playing games with the reader. As Peggy enters her aunt’s house she triggers an unexploded bomb…!
I got the outcome I wanted, but I engineered it in a way that wasn’t obvious, a way that was designed to catch the reader unawares.


Monday, 12 May 2014

Someone asked how we decide on names for the characters in our novels. This is Oliver, my younger grandson. In my latest novel (not quite complete) Oliver is the name of a pilot. My elder grandson - four this year - is called Henry. Henry is also the name of a pilot in one of my American stories. Henry's father is called Douglas Niall. Dougie Nyle is the name of the co-pilot in my thriller novel, Prestwick. So, what's the problem? Names are all around us.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Creating Imagery

It’s all about imagery. Years ago I used to paint pictures with oils. Today I paint pictures with words, and I create the images in much the same way I created the paintings. I start with a broad brush and block in a rough outline. Then I begin to flesh out the important aspects of the image. I leave it there until the first draft is complete. Then I go back to the start, I take up my small brushes and concentrate on the detail.
          I’m now working on the second off my WW1 novels. The first one – In Foreign Fields - is already published.
This is a scene from the second book. Lieutenant DeBoise is on the front line at the First Battle of Ypres. I’ll leave it like this until the first draft of the novel is complete, and then I’ll start the edit process. The detail will grow under editing, but the basis of the narrative will remain.

Daylight filled the sky when the cacophony of noise stopped. All along the line, men ceased their endeavours and looked up. Even RSM MacRapper seemed momentarily taken aback by the sudden silence.
“Listen. D’ye hear that, sir?” Donohoe tipped back the peak of his cap. “What’s happening?”
An overwhelming silence filled the air as DeBoise risked a peek over the trench ridge. Nothing moved, and not even birdsong marred the peace of the autumn morning.
“I don’t like it, Billy.” DeBoise slid back down into cover and looked along the line.
The Highlanders stopped digging and eyed one another warily. A low murmur began to creep along the trench.
“Pick up yer guns, lads.” MacRapper’s voice echoed along the trench. He sounded calm now, as if he knew what was to come and he was ready for it. “The bastard Hun will be coming soon. I feel it in me water. They’ll be expecting a weakness in the line here, but we’ll show them how a Highland regiment fights.” He raised his bolt-action Lee Enfield and felt in his pack for ammunition.
“There they are!” A lone voice rang out from the end of the line.
DeBoise peered again over the top of the trench. He flinched and grasped his Webley pistol tighter. The enemy were far off, but they were advancing towards the Highlanders. A hoard of grey uniforms emerged from the mist, hundreds of them, seemingly showing no hesitation.
“Stand to! With ten rounds, load!” An authoritative voice came echoing through the haze. It had to be an officer’s voice, firm and decisive with an educated accent. All along the line, the men stood to and pressed the first five rounds into their magazines. The voice continued with no sign of hesitancy. “Load carefully. Don’t rush it.” The second five rounds were loaded and then the bolts pushed the top round into the chamber.
“Safety catches off! Look to! Watch your front!”
The enemy were getting close now, almost within target range, but the regiment held their fire. DeBoise realised he was holding his breath. He tried to breathe normally.
“Now, lads! Now!” MacRapper didn’t wait for the officer’s voice to give the order. “At six hundred yards… independent fire! Let the bastards have it, lads!” He leaned forward against the side of the trench and began to shoot.
DeBoise saw two German soldiers fall in quick succession. The Highlanders raked the enemy line with rapid fire, picking off targets as they came into range. Some men fell in quick succession as the machine gun was brought into play. Others fell one by one. The Scottish riflemen worked their bolts with precision, firing off one round in each four seconds or less. The empty brass cases soon littered the floor of the trench.
The German officers waved their swords to urge their men forward, but the formation was breaking as man after man fell dead on the ground. The lucky ones were now only three hundred yards away.
“Sights down, lads! Carry on firing, and hold fast!” MacRapper shouted even as he fired. And, all along the line, other guns continued to spit out a lethal barrage.
Donohoe fired rapidly and then drew back to reload. “D’ye know how many soldiers the Hun army has, sir?” He pulled more bullets from his kit.
“Seven million,” DeBoise replied. He carefully aimed his Webley at an advancing German, pulled the trigger and watched the man crumple to the ground. “Less one,” he added.
Donohoe took aim again. “Jaysus, seven million, d’ye say? Reckon the whole bloody Hun army is after our blood right now.”
“Shut up and keep firing, Billy.”
There was no concept of time. The attack could have lasted a minute, an hour, or a day. DeBoise loaded and fired, loaded and fired and concentrated solely on making each shot count. He knew he was killing people, but the morality of it was lost behind the essential will to stay alive. The noise became a background blur, the grey-uniformed enemy kept advancing, and yet they seemed never to get any closer to the trench. As fast as they came forward, so they were mown down by the withering fire of the machine gun and the Highlanders’ rifles. The killing became a routine.
Sometime in the conflict - DeBoise had no concept of when - British artillery began a murderous response to the German attack. Crests of flame and fire appeared and disappeared amongst the German troops. Brown and grey crumples of mud rose up like ghosts from out of the uneven ground. The mist remained, or was it smoke? A line of naked trees was silhouetted on the horizon, like ethereal ghosts with their thin arms caught rigid in the throes of death. Behind them, a dirty grey sky was splattered with bursting shells, fiery rings quickly turning to black smudges.
Figures continued emerging from the smoky mist. DeBoise no longer thought of them as real people. They were grey, shadowy visitors from hell, dancing against the grey background. As exploding shells burst behind them they grew wings, yellow for a second and then grey as the flames died and turned to smoke. Then they became flying devils. They flew forwards with their arms spread wide in front of the grey, smudgy wings, and they fell onto the rippling, rumpling mud and were gobbled up by the hellish brown sludge. They were lost forever, quickly replaced by more shadowy figures, more grey devils from hell.
The noise continued. It was not consistent, but varying between sharp jolts of rifle fire and the booming background of the artillery barrage. The flying devils seemed somehow detached from the noise. They appeared, they flew, they fell. Behind them, the misty background spawned yet more to take their place. More brief yellow bursts of flames were followed by more splodges of dirty smoke, and more devilish Huns with grey uniforms, grey helmets and grey faces.
It wasn’t real, DeBoise tried to tell himself as he reloaded and fired again and again. How could all this possibly be real? Real meant human flesh and blood being ripped apart. Real meant people suffering. This had to be an illusion. It would stop in a moment and he would wake up.
But it didn’t stop.
Each shot from his pistol sent another enemy soldier to his death. Each artillery shell explosion sent more devils with wings flying through the stinking air. And then one figure, a lone German soldier, appeared out of the mist only ten yards in front of him, screaming as he ran. DeBoise fired automatically and the soldier crumpled to the ground.
It wasn’t real.
It was wrong, very wrong, but it wasn’t happening to him.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Audio books

I have just signed contracts with my publisher for my novel, Prestwick, to be made into an audio book. Next step is to list all the characters and their accents. There's quite a range of accents in that book. Should be fun for the narrator. I must say I am impressed by the way Cloudberry Books, a small independent press, are handling my books. They are the first to negotiate an audio book contract for me.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Time Scales

I have yet to work out why I am able to increase tension within a novel by keeping the overall timescale short.

I limited ‘In Foreign Fields’ to a short period after the Battle of Mons, August 1914. ‘In Line of Fire’ is the second book in the series and I have kept the timeline entirely within October 1914. It was a busy period, covering the siege of Antwerp and the First Battle for Ypres. Plenty to keep Wendel and DeBoise up to their eyes in active conflict.

I enjoyed reading ‘Birdsong’ but the timeline was much longer than I have used in my WW1 novels and, to my mind, that watered down the tension. I wonder if any other novelists have noticed that.

When writing my thriller, ‘Prestwick’, I kept everything within the period of a flight from New York to Scotland and that enabled me to really ratch up the tension, but that’s not a historical novel. Maybe, when I tackle another in the WW1 series, I’ll have to put Wendel and DeBoise into a situation that must be resolved in twenty four hours.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Manuscript is Going to Work

“In Line of Fire” will be the sequel to my WW1 novel, “In Foreign Fields”. I am now fifty thousand words into the first draft. I’ve reached that “Wow!” point which I assume all novelists experience when they realise that the novel is actually going to work rather well. All the previous effort is going to pay off. There’s a lot more to do, even before I start editing, but I am happy that it’s going to be worthwhile. It makes the writing off the later chapters a work of pure pleasure and excitement. Isn’t this one of the reasons why we write?

Friday, 4 April 2014

A New Review

I have had some very encouraging reviews for my books on Amazon, especially for "Prestwick". This is the latest.

I was absolutely spellbound by D.Houghs work, spent my last night burning the midnight oil to finish the book- no wonder David's readers want to make it into a movie.
Come on you directors and producers you must give this book a read
Having worked on an AOG desk for a major airline...
company in the past, I have come to see the reality of the work D. H has produced here. His knowledge of ATC and commercial aviation has made this work a masterpiece in aviation incidents.
The space shuttle to land at Preswick! What an experience that would have been to any observer, albeit rather risky But Achievable.
Congratulations David a great read. Cannot wait for your next aviation book.

It would be very nice if a film company did take notice.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Why Do I Write Books?

Why do I write books? Why do I spend hours at my computer creating lengthy stories? Today I like to see my books sell, as does any self-respecting writer, but that wasn’t the reason I started out as a writer.

It all started in my mortgage-paying days, when I was an air traffic controller. As high-pressure jobs go, it ranks well up the ladder. If a top brain surgeon makes one mistake, one patient could die. If an air traffic controller makes one mistake, a thousand people could die. It makes your eyes water just to think about it. I have worked alongside controllers who succumbed to stress-related illness or alcoholism before they reached the mid-point of their careers. I have worked alongside colleagues under pressure who died of a heart attack before they collected their pension.

My method of coping with the tensions of the job was—to start with—the relaxing pleasure of painting pictures. After a gruelling period on watch, I would settle down at an easel and quietly paint away my stress. No one suggested or expected I should make money out of it. They recognised that I did it simply for the calm recreation it afforded me. Later, I took to writing for the same reason. Instead of creating pictures in oils, I created them in words. And it worked for me as a way of wiping away the bad after-effects of the job. I’ve had a love of books from my childhood so maybe it was a natural step for me to move from painting to writing.

Today, when the pressures of ATC are behind me, I can concentrate on writing books that will sell. But that’s not how the whole thing started.


Saturday, 22 February 2014

Balancing Your Story

At an early stage of planning, you should be able to visualise your novel in three parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean putting a physical break between each section, as long as you can see identify three sections in your mind.

The first section, the beginning, will set the scene with the main character(s) and it will set out the main problem or conflict. The second section, the middle part of the novel, will develop both the character(s) and the main problem. The end section will see the main problem resolved in a satisfactory manner.

 Here are two examples:

Khaled Hosseinei’s novel: The Kite Runner

The beginning. The main character, Amin lives in Kabul. His best friend, Hassan, is the son of the household servant. Amin’s father shows undue attention to Hassan and Amin reacts by framing Hassan for a theft. As a result, Hassan and his father are forced to leave the house.

The middle. Amin and his father flee from the Taliban to the United States. There Amin grows into maturity. He marries but he and his wife are unable to have a family. Amin hears that Hassan has been killed in Kabul, leaving behind an orphan son. Amin is now filled with remorse for what he did years ago.

The end. Amin returns to Kabul to rescue Hassan’s son, take him to safety and raise him as his own.

My novel: The Long Road to Sunrise

The beginning. The main character, Faith Rivers lives in Australia. Knowing she was adopted, she makes contact with Bridget Hadleigh, her birth mother in England. Bridget and her husband, Douglas, fly out to Australia to meet her and Faith begins to tell them the harrowing story of her life.

The middle. Faith tells how she was adopted by Australian film makers who took her with them on an expedition into the Amazon rain forest. When her parents were killed by tribesmen, she was left as a child in the jungle. Known as Fayzella she grew up in a tribal community, but was desperate to find out who she really was. The story of her escape from the jungle was Faith’s long road to sunrise.

The end. Faith returns to the jungle to make a television film about herself, but she is captured by fierce tribesmen. Douglas Hadleigh leads an expedition to rescue her and return her to a life with himself and Bridget.

In each of those two novels, the main characters are defined in the beginning sections. The main problem, the one upon which the plot will depend, is also introduced.

In The Kite Runner, the beginning section sets the scene by telling us about Amin and the strong bond that exists between him and Hassan, the servant boy who is the kite runner of the title. We learn a lot about the social differences between them, and about their lives in Kabul. We also discover why Amin feels jealous of Hassan when the servant boy receives attention from Amin’s father. He is not a bad person, but the jealousy is enough to cause him to do something out of character.

In The Long Road to Sunrise, the beginning section sets the scene by telling us about Faith Rivers and the fact that she was adopted at birth. We also learn that memories of giving away her first child still haunt Bridget Hadleigh. When Faith tells them that she suffered badly in the rain forest, it hits hard with Bridget and her husband.

In each case, the beginning sections of the two novels set the foundations upon which the novels will work. The middle sections then serve to develop the characters and the plot.

In The Kite Runner, the middle section develops Amin’s character as he grows into manhood in the United States. We see him mature in the way he looks after his ailing father, and in the way he supports his wife. He becomes a stronger person than the child he was in Kabul.

In The Long Road to Sunrise, the middle section goes back to Faith’s life as Fayzella, a child lost in the rain forest. It is a development section in as much as it tells us so much about what made Faith the person she later became. It shows us how she developed resilience and persistence in her need to find out about her real identity. More than that, this section also develops the plot by setting the basis upon which she will later return to make a film about herself.

In each case, the middle sections of the two novels build upon the foundations that were laid in the beginning sections. The final sections then bring everything to a conclusion.

In The Kite Runner, Amin is driven by remorse to return to Kabul in an effort to rescue Hassan’s son. He risks his own life in an act of atonement. At this point we fully understand his motivations because we have seen him grow from child to man.

In The Long Road to Sunrise, Faith returns to the rain forest with a film crew and we understand why she wants to revisit her past. But the film crew are killed and Faith is again at the mercy of fierce tribesmen. It falls upon Douglas Hadleigh to organise a rescue expedition. We understand why he needs to see Faith returned to safety because we have seen his horrified reactions to her story in the middle section.

In order to develop a novel along these lines, you will need to identify those three sections - beginning, middle and end – at an early stage. It would be unwise to simply write with no clear plan in mind and trust to luck that the story will have that coherent structure. Without pre-planning, luck will not always come to your aid and the structure may not appear.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Last year, while attending the annual Swanwick Writer’s Summer School, I set a competition. Three of my novels are linked to a fictitious Dorset village which I call Hampton Warlock. The puzzle was to determine how I came up with the name Hampton Warlock. The prize was a copy of my novel, King’s Priory. Only one person came to me with the correct answer, a lady from the United States. I was highly impressed that someone living on the opposite side of the pond could be the only person to work out the answer. No more prizes, but can you work out the origin on the name?

Saturday, 1 February 2014


It’s ironic when the books you thought would sell well are beaten into second place by one you wrote as a “quickie” largely for your own amusement. That seems to be the case with "In the Shadow of Disgrace", the story of a disgraced naval officer in eighteenth century Cornwall getting caught up in the smuggling trade. It’s pure escapism, written on a whim because my ancestry is Cornish. But it’s selling better than books I wrote with more serious intent.
I ended the book with... all the loose ends tied up, but with scope to take the main characters into a new adventure. However, I won’t write that book just yet. Instead I plan to get a different Cornish historical out this year. This next book will tell the tale of a nineteenth century Cornish policeman… just like my great grandfather.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Characters or Plot?

Creating convincing characters is an important part of novel writing. But which comes first? Characters or plot?

If I am writing a one-off novel or the first of a series I will create the plot first. Then I will design the characters to fit the demands of that plot. I find that much the easiest way to do it.

When I come to write the second novel in a series I have no option but to begin with ready-made characters from the first book. Now I have to work the plot around those characters, and that's not so easy. I may want them to behave in a certain way in order to make the plot work, but the way I originally designed those people may make that behavior impossible. They must behave according to the character traits I gave them.

That's the problem I had to work on when I wrote the plot for the sequel to In Foreign Fields. My characters were fully formed from the first story and the plot had to accommodate them.

So my plot-line for this second book started out with two main constraints. The first was the ready-made characters. The second constraint was what actually happened back in October 1914.

All of this is part of the reason why I use a story development system.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Working on Book Two

I’m now twenty five thousand words into Book Two of my WW1 series, and it isn’t an easy one to write. This story runs from the Siege of Antwerp up to the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. I have to marry together what actually happened in 1914 with the plot line of this novel. I also have to keep true to characters that were created for the plot of the first story.

I want these stories to depict the progress of that war in order to inform readers who might otherwise know little about it. So many readers would never pick up a non-fiction book but will happily enjoy a novel, and learn from it. That’s why it’s so important for novelists (and film makers!) to get things right. I have numerous non-fiction books to help me. I have also managed to access, via the internet, reports by American war correspondents. Being neutral in the early stages, they had valuable access to people and places other were denied.


Friday, 3 January 2014

In Foreign Fields

It’s now 2014, almost one hundred years since WW1 began in August 1914. My grandfather, a territorial soldier, was one of the first to cross the Channel to fight in that war. He was badly wounded twice and had shrapnel embedded in his chest to the day he died. Unfit to go back to his old job as an electrician in the Yorkshire mines, he travelled the country during the depression looking for work. He wasn’t the only one of the family to suffer because of his injuries. I recall hearing how my grandmother had to sell her mangle to pay for the family to move south. By the time of the Second World War, my grandfather was working in Devonport Dockyard and my grandmother had another mangle. That was where my parents met during that war. I had good family reason to want to write about that First World War and the terrible effect it had on the men who took part in it.

I began my research with the opening days of the war, the retreat from Mons, the Schlieffen Plan and the German advance across Belgium. I learned about the brutality suffered by the Belgian population, especially in the city of Leuven. It was an illuminating experience and taught me far more than I would otherwise have learned. I think I now understand far more about it than the simplistic concept I once had, a concept of muddy trenches and soldiers badly led. By the time I finished writing book one, “In Foreign Fields” I felt compelled to keep writing, to keep on telling the story as I now saw it. These past few weeks should have been a seasonal holiday, but I have been using my time to build up the manuscript that will eventually become book two, “In Line of Fire.”