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Monday, 16 September 2013

Beginning – the hook

I’ve said it a number of times, but it’s worth repeating: beginnings of stories and novels are important. They’re the hook for the reader. 

Many film directors appreciate this too. Pull the audience in quickly and then never let go. I’ve sat through a number of movies where the start was inauspicious, plodding, revealing nothing about the characters, the environment or the story theme – and then found that eventually the story (at last!) takes hold. Nowadays, that leisurely approach rarely works in the written word. The audience, the reader, needs to be sucked in by the first paragraph or two. He or she isn’t going to invest precious time in something that doesn’t intrigue, excite interest or raise questions.

That doesn’t mean the writer should spend ages on the beginning, honing it, striving to ‘get it right’ – the beginning might well not resolve itself until the work is completed.

I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a contract with Crooked Cat Publishing for Spanish Eye, a collection of short stories about Leon Cazador, private eye. The image is taken from the Crooked Cat Facebook page announcement (it isn’t the cover):

Spanish Eye makes a great companion volume to my book Blood of the Dragon Trees, set in Tenerife, also published by Crooked Cat.

These stories were previously published by Solstice, but the contract expired; an extra short story has been added, so now there are twenty-two first person tales, a couple of them award-winners, all of them previously published in magazines (though lengthened in most cases). Here below are samples of a selection of beginnings from the collection (this post would be too long to include all of them!).
Relic Hunters
Angel Ramos held his breath as he carefully unlatched then lifted the ornate lid off the rosewood box. A distinctive smell emerged like a palpable thing, together with a fine miasma of dust that floated in the sunbeams slanting through the hotel window. It was the aroma of old parchment or vellum that harboured the dust of centuries.
Night Fishing
Dusk fled quickly, as it does out here in the south of Spain. The warm night air was humid and still. The full moon’s reflection glinted from the calm Mediterranean. Behind me, cicadas chirruped but I barely heard them as I was concentrating on the little fishing boat out at sea, with its nightlight casting a circle of white around the stern. From the cliff top, I watched the three of them through 10x50 binoculars, and my fears were confirmed. Old Salvador Molina needed his strong sons to haul the net in because it seemed to contain a heavy object. My heart sank.
            Sometimes, the night of unreason lurks in dark recesses, waiting to cloak the good earth, and it would seem that even this honest fisherman was not immune to the importuning of this evil night.
Grave Concerns
The mass grave by the roadside was not the first in Spain to be unearthed in the last four years and it wouldn’t be the last. On each side were carobs and bright yellow and blue wild flowers, a tranquil contrast to the macabre sight before us. Men in the trench wore gauze masks over their mouths as they lifted out human bones and strips of clothing and placed them reverently on a length of tarpaulin. Behind them stood an idle mechanical earth-digger, while beyond the fields of rosemary and artichokes rose the rugged mountains, mute witnesses to what had happened about sixty-seven years ago.
Off Plan
I was wearing a false moustache, grey coloured contact lenses, and my hair was dyed black. My brother, Juan, wouldn’t recognize me. In fact, I had difficulty recognizing me. I was no longer Leon Cazador but Carlos Ortiz Santos. Sometimes it was necessary to wear a disguise and take on a fake name to hoodwink the ungodly. This was one of those times.
Endangered Species
He had large eyes, big ears and, surprisingly, his middle finger was very long on each hand. “He looks cute,” I said, lowering the photograph of the little aye-aye. His hair was black, and he had a long bushy tail. His eyes seemed to be expressing surprise at finding himself in a cage rather than the diminishing rain forests of Madagascar. Perhaps the daylight conditions affected him, too, which wasn’t strange really, as his kind is nocturnal. “But,” I added, shaking my head in mock concern, “my fiancée wants something a bit more exotic. Know what I mean?”
Big Noise
“You’ve come to the right person, Mr. Santos!” Darren Atkins said, speaking louder than was necessary in the tapas bar that overlooked the Plaza Mayor. “My product is the best on Spain’s south coast, take my word for it! I’m the big noise around here!” Every sentence tended to end with an exclamation. This self-styled important person was big in other respects as well. Even when I use my real name, Leon Cazador, rather than my undercover alias of Carlos Santos, I stand six feet high in my open-toed sandals; yet Atkins was a couple of inches taller than me. His Hawaiian-style short-sleeved shirt bulged because he had big muscles and shoulders. Because he had shaved his head, his big ears appeared more prominent and tended to press forward like little radar. I wondered if that feature prompted him to go into the acoustics business.
Duty Bound
A mountainous landscape populated by dragons strode out of the swathes of sauna steam and approached me. Hiroki Kuroda was tattooed over his entire torso and down to his wrists and calves. At a glance, he gave the impression that he was wearing long johns; instead, he was a walking exhibition of yakuza body art. Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man sprang to mind, but this was no fantasy. As a member of the yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization similar to the Mafia, Hiroki endured hundreds of hours of pain simply to show that he could. He waved with his left hand. The little finger was missing at the first knuckle.
Burning Issue
Landscape defines some towns and cities. And even the people and the small mountain town of Cocentaina were perhaps typical. So I thought as I drove Jacinto Alvarez and his wife Puri along the A7 on our approach. The town had been under siege more than once in its history and I reflected that that was how the Alvarez couple felt right now.
Pigeon Hearted
Fireworks in daytime are not particularly spectacular, but that doesn’t deter my Spanish compatriots from setting them off. The clear blue sky was momentarily sprayed with silver and red stars as the single rocket exploded above the town square. Minutes afterwards, a profusion of colours darted above our heads, but this display wasn’t the transient starburst of more pyrotechnics. The palette that soared in the sky came from garishly painted pigeons released from patios, balconies, rooftops, and gardens. In the next few minutes, the number of male birds increased to perhaps seventy.
I hope they've given you a taster for the book, due out later this year!

The late Elmore Leonard famously stated ‘never begin any story with the weather’. He meant get into the character or the action immediately. I’d agree with that – though there are other considerations. Raise a question that the reader wants answered, create a visual image that lodges in the reader’s head. The above examples probably do some of that, I believe.
So, that’s the end of the beginning – for now.


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