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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Writing – research – To the Frontier!

While researching for my work-in-progress, The Khyber Chronicle (book #3 in the Tana Standish psychic spy series), I was reading To the Frontier by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1984),  and came across some fascinating passages that evoked memories of 1969 (see my blog dated 13 March 2014 -

I’m unlikely to use the following information in the book, but it is still of personal interest. As can be seen in the accompanying photos (photos of old slides!), I was fortunate enough to travel through the Khyber Pass.

Here’s a photo of Jamrud fort with its khaki battlements. 

Built by the Sikh Governor of Peshawar, Hari Singh, in 1836.  Beyond was a notice: ‘Foreigners are asked not to leave the highway in the Khyber Pass.’ It stood ‘in the shadow of the amateur theatrical Bab-e-Khyber, the stone gateway with two cannon perched on top, which Ayub Khan had built in the 1950s to mark the start of the historic traverse.’ 

Here’s the photo of the gate (Bab). 

On the other side of the Bab was a long marble slab which in English and Urdu bore a potted history of the pass, engraved at the same time as the gateway was installed. It included an excerpt from Kipling’s ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’.

And here’s a photo of me in front of the gate.

Another marble slab at Fort Jamrud stated: ‘According to the British, it was here they met their equals, who looked them straight in the face and fought against them up the last day of their rule. But when the British quit, after a rule of over 100 years, the two great peoples parted as friends.’

The Khyber was entered through a defile along the dry bed, tributary to the Kabul River, which in season would be a foaming torrent. Entering the defile was like going through a fortified gateway itself. ‘One minute we were driving along the flat with open space on three sides, the next we had crossed the threshold, rounded a bend, and were totally enclosed.’ (p219) I would endorse that feeling, having experienced it fifteen years earlier.
The Khyber’s surrounding peaks rose to 6,800ft. Fort Jamrud stood at 1,670ft, and the village at the end, just before the border of Afghanistan is Landi Kotal at 3,373ft, so it was a steady ascent over twenty-odd miles. Hence the phrase ‘up the Khyber’?

The narrowest part of the pass (50yds in width) is commanded by one of the oldest forts, Ali Masjid, built on a cliff, with only one turret visible from the road. Not far beyond it was a collection of regimental badges decorating the rock faces beside the road. Blocks of concrete moulded, sculpted – the Dorset Regiment, the Royal Sussex Regiment, the Essex Regiment, the South Wales Borderers, the Cheshire Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders. And still maintained. ‘This spoke of an uncommon bond, a curious comradeship formed even by antagonists, that had endured.’ (p221) [My father’s army crest was there – the Cheshire Regiment.]

It was a hot day and our vehicles stopped at a stream where we could stretch our legs (see photo) and I was very aware of the injunction at the Khyber Gate not to leave the highway! 

Here’s a photo of a fort overlooking the stream.

The pass widened and levelled out before we came to Landi Kotal. Besides the road access, there was a train that ran from Peshawar to this village: its platform only a bare stretch of concrete, half a mile from the town. A marvellous engineering feat, the rail track traversed a multitude of tunnels in the rock and here’s a photo of one.

The village was not big, perhaps a half-mile in length, a collection of mud or brick buildings, stalls selling drinks and trinkets. I saw Pathans draped in bandoliers of bullets, forbidding proud-looking characters.  We bought bottles of 7-Up. Moorhouse called it ‘a scrofulous little place… a desperately enervated place.’ In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-1980 (the time of my novel) refugees flooded into this village and buildings began to spring up; many families then made their way down to Peshawar. Pathan tribesmen would spend time regrouping and then re-enter Afghanistan to wage war on the Soviet interlopers. Refugees from war - sounds depressingly familiar...

We climbed the short distance to take in the view to the border and the plain beyond. Kabul ahead, and the snow-capped mountains on our far right. (No photos, alas!)

Moorhouse was a prolific author of non-fiction. He died in 2009, aged 77. See his obituary here

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Writing - Resources - Master Lists for Writers


Bryn Donovan (2015)

Whether a writer is attempting to tackle her first novel or his twenty-fifth, they should be keen on making the work as readable as possible – and that means injecting variety, meeting intriguing characters, travelling to exotic worlds, revealing universal truths, creating visual descriptions that enter the reader’s mind’s eye, to name a few goals in the quest for enjoyment.

Striving to write elegant prose, captivating stories that entertain and perhaps educate a little is no easy feat, so it’s always helpful to obtain guidance whenever it’s available. There are a good number of books that guide writers – some specific about character emotions, plot or a particular genre (see my own Write a Western in 30 Days). There are several offering lists for the writer – and these have their place too, as tools.

This book falls into that last category.

Bryn Donovan has worked hard to provide a fascinating and useful compendium of words, phrases, and triggers to help the writer. It may not make the actual graft easier, but if used sensibly, this book can improve that work immensely. I don’t regard these lists as ‘cheat sheets’ because you still have to put in the effort, to create the plot, define the characters and to imagine their fictional world.

What’s on offer, then?

The section on descriptions of facial expressions is useful, because it’s so easy to fall back on ‘he smiled’ or ‘she grinned’. The human face is capable of manifold aspects, some quite subtle; choose the most apt for the scene or emotion.  Body language speaks to us with subtlety too, and yet as writers we tend not to employ the richness that is visible to the discerning eye – again, conveying a character’s mood. Naturally, we have the usual eye, complexion, face, body, mouth, hair and body descriptions – try to vary the characters in the story so they’re not all similar.

One section of particular interest is that concerning ‘evocative images’ – a single feather or a rainbow in an oil slick can provide a telling image in a scene, put the reader there in the character’s point of view. Other lists provide sounds and scents for settings – again, putting the reader in the story.

There are lists for plotting: romance, high-stakes, twists, humour, motives for murder etc. I’ve got more than enough plots going on for my various projects, I must admit, though it’s conceivable that some of the suggested plots could be opted for a short story or three.

Dialogue can be a trial for some writers. Make it real without being boring or slowing down the story. Here we have lists showing how people say ‘no’, ‘yes’ or ‘verbalize positive (or negative) feelings’ and so on.

There’s a good selection of character names and character traits, too.

The book ends with an important list: ‘10 reasons why you should write that story’. I endorse all ten and particularly commend #7: Because it doesn’t have to be perfect. Whatever your hang ups, get the story written. ‘It’s the final draft that counts.’ And this book will help you polish your novel to get there.


Her website is

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Book review - The Things Men Do

James Hadley Chase wrote this fast-paced crime novel in 1953 using the pen-name Raymond Marshall. My paperback was published in 1970 (having been published also in 1962, 1963 (3 times), and 1965. (It has an uninspiring cover, but doubtless one of a sequence following a visual theme at the time). A very popular author, indeed, Chase wrote 90 mystery novels under five names, beginning his writing career with No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) .

It’s a first person narrative with mid-Atlantic vocabulary – car hood for bonnet, for example - though it's set in early 1950s London. Garage owner Harry Collins gives a lift to an attractive woman, Gloria when she was stranded. A typical manipulative femme fatale, she wantonly insinuates herself into his thoughts even after they’ve parted, though he loves his wife Ann. Harry’s business isn’t doing so well, so when Gloria turns up at the garage with a suggestion for him to make a little money by hiring out an area for storage, he jumps at the chance – not least because it means he can see more of her. His guilt is evident, too: ‘Ann hadn’t seen her, sheltering as she had been under the umbrella. I suddenly noticed Tim’s head poking out from under the car. He looked at Ann, then at me. I felt like a pickpocket caught in the act.’ (p30)

The book blurb gives away too much plot for my liking, so I won’t mention a couple of salient interesting incidents that crank up the suspense. Suffice for me to say that there are nefarious reasons for Harry renting out garage space to Gloria's pals... 

The narrative is slick, drawing the reader in, knowing that Harry is heading for a fall, yet he can’t avoid it. It’s a page-turner, with hardly any words wasted in its 150 pages. Chase is a visual storyteller: ‘Tim came in, pushing his bicycle. He was wearing a yellow mackintosh cape, and his tow-coloured hair was plastered flat by the rain.’ (p23)

There’s a sordid aspect, as you’d expect from the set-up, yet Chase doesn’t go in for graphic violence or explicit sex, that’s left to the reader’s imagination. Double-cross, deceit, unstinting love, poignant murder – it’s all there, in what is in effect a moral tale, well told.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Saturday story - 'If we shadows have offended' - part 2 of 2


 Part 2 of 2

Nik Morton

After some time, Zeigler noticed a lighter patch ahead, getting bigger. The indefinable edges again, the tint of a dusky sky...
            He didn't recall passing through the hole or landing. Perhaps he simply materialised?
            Darkness. Raised jaunty voices. The rank stench of open sewers. These were his first impressions. It was night. He looked around and discovered he was still lying in the pod amidst a grove of bushes.
            He checked the two console buttons. Red for his return signal. Green for opening the pod. Another button, on the reverse of his eye-pendant, worked the pod’s entrance-hatch for ingress.
            Zeigler operated the green button and no sooner had he stepped out than the hatch shut behind him.
            As he walked a few paces out of the bushes, he glanced back and was surprised to find he could no longer see the pod; its see-through capabilities aided concealment: someone would have to virtually stumble over it to discover the craft’s presence.
            He didn’t have far to walk before he came to the town with its tumbled toppling street, black and white timber awry, cobbles threatening to pitch him every which way. Cats fought for thrown out fish-heads and other unidentifiable scraps.
            Zeigler felt very vulnerable strolling the streets, for in these times no man was safe from the reach of the torturer or the smell of the dungeon. A carrion odour blew towards him and he retched emptily: ahead he noticed the swaying hanging remnants of a human being; some of the hideous butchery on the scaffold was sufficient even to turn the stomach of an Elizabethan crowd.
            A building belched forth the soul of an alehouse but, gagging on the riot of smells, he passed it by. He needed to find Mistress Turner’s lodging house, up a squeeze-gut alley.
            The air inside Mrs Turner’s was thick with tobacco smoke, a relatively new fad. Clay pipes abounded. The place choked with the low and their rank stink: bad breath, black teeth, and foul loud holes of country mouths.
            Nobody paid him much heed as he found a corner bench in an alcove and settled next to an old smocked shepherd who reeked of tar, his nail-ends black crescents.
            A shag-bearded ruffian shouted, ‘What cheer, bully!’
            Another riposted, ‘Go hang yourself, whoreson devil!’
            Zeigler’s pulse raced: he was so thrilled to be here, living in Elizabethan England!
            Then of course doubts surfaced. Was he in the correct building? On the right day?
            He must first locate Marlowe. Gambling upstairs, if the reports could be believed.
            Zeigler suddenly felt angry at the strict State regulations. Surely they could provide period money? How could he hope to merge in with this rowdy lot if he couldn’t purchase any ale? Besides, the journey had left him parched.
            ‘You be a fresh face!’ exclaimed a bewhiskered character in stained breeches and frayed jerkin. ‘Have a drink on me! ‘Tis my lucky day, man! I wed in the morn!’
            ‘Aye,’ chipped in the groom’s companion, ‘this jackanape with scarves is bawd-born for sure!’
            Profuse with his thanks, Zeigler was quick to accept. According to the regulations, he was not prohibited from imbibing drink and eating food from the period, though he was warned against doing so for health reasons.
            The groom jostled and joked around the tavern, obviously well prepared for tomorrow’s eve if his suggestive remarks to the bar-harlots were anything to go by. Zeigler sidled round to the door leading to the staircase above the bustling taproom.
            ‘Give us a feel of your tushy twat, you triple-turn’d whore!’ a young gentleman requested of a barmaid.
            ‘Piss o’ th’ nettle! Thou thing of no bowels!’ She suddenly reached down under the man’s codpiece and squeezed sharply. The man she thus assailed squealed in a high pitch that brought laughter from his companions but no aid. ‘Pedlar’s excrement, thy cannon is not big enough!’ she laughed uproariously, her breath wafting the stink of Banbury cheese, revealing black teeth that showed their waists.
            On tenterhooks, Zeigler tiptoed up the first creaking flight, round the doglegged landing, into a candlelit room where he discovered a group of four quite young men hunched over a rough well-scrubbed table laden with black bread, cold fowls, kickshaws, ale and applejohns. They were talking in deep hushed voices.
            The place was poorly lit with one wooden candelabrum on the table and another on a chest of drawers. Zeigler was unable to identify any of the men.
            ‘More ale, scullion!’ one called, holding up a flagon.
            Heart hammering, Zeigler realised that, in the shadows, he had been mistaken for a servant.
            ‘Aye, sir!’ Zeigler answered gutturally, and slipped out onto the landing again.
            To his left was a dumb-waiter, on which three flagons overflowed. Animalistic grunts and groans and a girl’s breathless transports of passion came from the adjoining room. At least he now knew where the real servant had gone.
            Unbuttoning his doublet, Zeigler lifted a filthy apron from a peg by the dumb-waiter, dishevelled his hair and sauntered back inside with a frothy flagon of ale.
            ‘... been here most of the day, now...’
            ‘Damme, Christopher! A pox on the Privy Council! If they want to arrest you for Heresy, then let them find you!’
            ‘Well spoken, Master Poley, but I have said before refrain from calling me Christopher – “one who bears Christ on his back”!’ laughed the poet. ‘You forget,’ he went on, his young voice dripping irony, ‘I am an alleged atheist!’
            As Zeigler served, he found it difficult to contain his excitement. Marlowe had been known to associate with a group of free thinking intellectuals called “The School of Night”, so perhaps these were the same fellows, and not the ruffians from the reports? His temperature rose, surging in his veins. So close!
            ‘I hear Topcliffe’s keen to meet you, Chris?’ said Poley.
            ‘Her Majesty’s rackmaster, eh? Who not only tortures for the Queen but, so he boasts, fondles her thighs and belly and puts his hands between her breasts and sucks her paps!’
            ‘Have a care, Chris!’
            ‘Do not fear, Nicholas, I be among friends! Besides, I am already informed against by that recreant and most degenerate traitor himself, Richard Baines!’
            Nicholas Skeres still looked worried. ‘But you’ve never said that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest, surely?’
            Marlowe grinned, downed his ale. ‘That is one of the blasphemies attributed to me, yes. Also, that Christ and St John were as the sinners of Sodoma, I do believe!’
            ‘And,’ interrupted Ingram Friser, ‘that all they who love not tobacco and boys are fools!’
            ‘Mayhap I should not have penned The Jew of Malta?’ Marlowe mused aloud. And he quoted, ‘I count religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance.’ He laughed bitterly, wiping soft fleshy lips. ‘God’s body, I have a thirst on me tonight!’
            ‘Another, and be quick about it!’ snapped Skeres.
            ‘Tish, that’s no way to speak with yon fellow, Nicholas!’ Marlowe berated softly. ‘But enough, this is the silliest stuff that I ever heard!’
            Zeigler stared, disbelieving he had just heard words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
            ‘We must talk on how we are to deal with the Privy Council -- when our other, most secret duties require me to be free... What say you, Ingram?’
            It was most exasperating, unable to catch but patches of conversation between these men. Zeigler had an inkling that there was government business involved. But he couldn’t be sure.
            ‘Since Sir Francis’s death three years gone, we’ve had sorry dealings from the government, would you say?’
            A hearty roar of assent hurried Zeigler on his way for more beer. Fingers crossed, he shouted his order to the scullions below.
            When he returned, an older, stouter man had joined the party. He busied himself fastening his codpiece, all the while leering at the flushed serving girl who stood by the door.
            ‘... and the prating mountebank threatened the widow with the sight of the devil unless she consented to his desires!’ ended Poley, grinning.
            ‘The only devil she will get sight of is his loaded cannon!’
            ‘God’s breath! What a foul-mouthed and calumnious knave!’ remonstrated Friser.
            Feeling a little bolder now, Zeigler asked the newcomer, ‘Is it ale you’ll be wantin’’
            The man stared. ‘What bloody man is that?’ he said, clearly unaware he had used a phrase from the still-to-be-written Macbeth.
            Silence fell.
            Marlowe’s brows arched. ‘Why, landlord, he is one of your staff, been serv-’
            ‘’Sdeath he is not!’
            Hands fell on Zeigler then, as he tried backing away.
            ‘Whoremonger!’ shouted Skeres.
            ‘Grab the bitch-wolf’s son!’ snarled Poley.
            Ingram Friser caught hold of Zeigler’s open doublet; the material ripped, spewing bran stuffing onto the table of ale.
            Flagons were upset, spilling to the stone floor, crashing amidst chicken legs and sides of beef.
            ‘He’s a spy -- a toady degenerate traitor!’ shouted Nicholas Skeres.
            In the struggle, heart hammering fearfully, Zeigler dismantled the nearest candles, plunging half the room into shadows.
            Lancing pain signalled the thud of a rounded leather shoe thudding maliciously into his stomach.
            Whooping and spluttering, Zeigler managed to roll out of Friser’s grip.
            Someone swore. ‘Slit the taffeta punk’s gizzard!’
            The table scraped noisily. Bare boards rattled.
            ‘Have a care!’ It sounded like Marlowe’s voice. ‘I ended up in Newgate three years gone -- just for being involved in an affray like this!’
            ‘He’ll run to the Privy Council if we let him go now, man!’
            ‘He’s been at our great feast of languages and stolen the scraps!’
            ‘We can’t--’
            Zeigler gasped, eyes smarting, a searing pain in his chest and back. He coughed, staggered and fell to the hard boards.
            ‘Quick, I skewered the bastard!’ Friser.
            ‘A light -- more light, Robert! Over here!’ Marlowe urged, kneeling down by Zeigler’s side.
            Head swimming, Zeigler didn’t realise immediately; then, as Poley carried over more lighted candles, he sucked in a dread, expectant breath: Friser’s sword had pierced the pendant eye, penetrated his chest and come out through the black box at his shoulder.
            But he didn’t disintegrate: nothing happened!
            Relief made him tremble in Marlowe’s arms.
            ‘I’m sorry, stranger,’ Marlowe said gently. ‘Friser lost his nerve.’
            A new horror struck Zeigler. With the pendant destroyed, its obverse button wouldn’t be able to re-open the pod. He was trapped! ‘My eye,’ he moaned. Absurdly, a quotation from The Tempest burgeoned to his mind:
            ‘We shall lose our time
             And all be turn’d to barnacles, or to apes
             With foreheads villainous low.’
            Then he noticed Marlowe’s hands gently unbuttoning the fastenings below his knees, pulling his baggy breeches down, together with his yellow knitted stockings. Dear God, what was he -- ?
            Then Marlowe whispered, absently,
            ‘Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
             He bravely broach’d his boiling breast.’
            And Zeigler forgot any imagined sexual threat as his heart soared, because those were the words of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, supposedly not written until next year, 1594. Vindicated, at last!
            Suddenly, he jerked his head round as he heard Skeres and Friser in heated discussion, apparently threatening the landlord in the far corner. ‘A quarrel -- over the bill’s settlement,’ Friser insisted.
            As though a disinterested spectator, Zeigler watched Marlowe undress himself and don the clothes approved by the Timedoor Committee. ‘My fellow, you have an undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest, unconfirmed fashion. But it will serve.’
            Zeigler tried to shout, to demand an explanation, but no sound came, only a mouthful of warm blood.
            Marlowe addressed Ingram Friser. ‘You’ve agreed to do it, then?’
            Friser nodded. ‘Aye, in his foolish brain -- to confound any identification.’
            They all seemed vague now, like shadows flitting in front of his eyes. But the wound would not mend and this was no dream, midsummer or otherwise.
            Zeigler’s vision faded. His mind seemed to be tossing on an ocean. Dimly, he heard Marlowe sadly intone:
            ‘If we shadows have offended,
            Think but this, and all is mended,
            That you have but slumber’d here
            While these visions did appear.’
Winter closed in upon Zeigler and he went very cold.