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Thursday, 4 May 2017

Writing - Background to historical stories (4)

For those readers who are interested in the background to stories, here are a few notes on the short stories in my fourth collection, Codename Gaby. The printing history for the stories ranges from 1975 to 2011.
            In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I read a lot of true war stories – The White Rabbit, Carve Her Name With Pride, Odette, The Naked Island, Boldness Be My Friend, The Colditz Story, Commando Extraordinary, and Ill Met By Moonlight, among many others. I always hankered after writing a French Resistance novel. I have still to do that, but I have compensated a little by writing two stories on the subject: ‘Codename Gaby’ and ‘Hammer and Honey’. The former won a writing competition and the comments gleaned are here:
                ‘(Codename Gaby) is a tale of betrayal and extreme courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, written with great insight and sensitivity. The emotional conclusion is well crafted, leaving the reader bruised but relieved, just as it should for such an intense period of wartime history.’ – Award Organiser’s comments
            ‘This short story captures suspense, drama and wonderful character depiction. In less than 2,500 words, we know and relate to our heroine, the period and her situation. The story is complete and compelling. It is a remarkable achievement and demonstrates this author’s outstanding writing skills.’ – Kate Cavendish, Book Awards reviewer
            The earliest story represented in this collection is ‘The Trilby Hat’, which was originally broadcast on British Forces Radio, Malta, read by Reverend Ray Jones, November 1975. For the time transition, the production team used incidental music which proved effective. I’ve still got the recording from the radio. I jiggled the date-time for the printed version some years later. It grew out of an evening visit to a Portsmouth pub in the early 1970s when I was propping up the bar and an old gent wearing a battered trilby hat came in…
            ‘Tealeaf’ is slang for ‘thief’. Society rightly frowns on thieves. Theft is despicable, and even more so in a closed community, such as a ship or submarine. Servicemen were sent to detention if caught thieving; I used to type up the warrants. This story extrapolates.
            The early days of Australia have been of interest since I read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. I’m also fascinated by myths. So I was drawn to write ‘Creation Myth’.
            In my Tana Standish psychic spy series, I have introduced a number of secret agents, friends of Tana. I wanted to write some short adventures about them and when the writing circle prompt was ‘turkey’ I came up with ‘Cold Turkey’. Another prompt was ‘leather’ so ‘Hell for Leather’ was the result. In keeping with the Tana series, both stories blend fact with fiction. I’ll probably attempt a number of slightly longer stories about these agents in the near future. The events involving Alan Swann occur before he acquired a limp and a glass eye, as revealed in Mission: Prague and explained in Mission: Khyber.
            The reconstruction required in the aftermath of the Second World War must have been daunting. Reading about it, I was inspired to write ‘One day we’ll walk through’, which was also intended as a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
            When my wife and I saw the rather small pyramids on Tenerife, I conjured with the idea that certain craftsmen could have travelled there from Egypt in the prehistoric past. Certainly, having seen the pyramid of Altun Ha in Belize, I find that Heyerdahl’s theory that reed boats could have travelled across the Atlantic most compelling. This story is an attempt at visualising that ancient journey. The title is taken from Matthew chapter 11, verse 7.
            In my research for other work, I’d come across John Dee (1527-1609) and found him a fascinating character. I wanted to attempt realising his life and the best way to do that was for him to reminisce in writing. An occultist, mathematician, philosopher, astrologer and possibly spy for Queen Elizabeth, he was hoodwinked by an ex-criminal Edward Kelley into believing that angels communicated through Kelley. Dee died in poverty under the care of his daughter ‘about’ 1609. What drew me was the accusation of ‘calculating’ being a heinous crime! And we thought we had problems with the PC crowd finding offense at the drop of an innocent word or two…
            I wrote ‘For Valour’ expressly because I was inspired by the Help for Heroes campaign and it coincided with the time of commemorating the first awards of the Victoria Cross.
            ‘Born of Joy’ was written for Remembrance Day and its explanation is in a dedication note at the end.
            Another period that intrigues me is the English Civil War (1642-1651). I recalled the 1950s comic series featuring Cavalier Claude Duval (though in fact the real Claude Duval was a gentleman highwayman who came to England after the Civil War; he was sentenced to hang by Sir William Morton in 1670). ‘The Reckoning’ is a nod to a period I’d like to return to at greater length.
            ‘The Proper Thing to do’ evolved from reading about the ill-fated HM Troopship Birkenhead. I wanted to experiment and write this with a single person speaking, present tense. This was the birth of a tradition, too: women and children first. The story gained an ‘honourable mention’ in a competition before being published a couple of years later.
            ‘When the flowers are in bloom’ was inspired by the true tales of survivors from the war being discovered on tropical islands years after hostilities ended. Also, I wanted to attempt a detective quest in a strange land. I’d been to Japan in the late 1960s onboard HMS Zulu, but didn’t get the opportunity to travel far. The story was a runner-up in an international writing competition and published in the organisation’s anthology. The story was the title for an anthology of my short stories published in the US, now out-of-print.
            ‘Day of the Unicorn’ was written from another writers’ circle prompt – ‘unicorn’. A fun piece, mixing humour with myth, it sadly didn’t find a home in any of the limited number of magazines I deemed suitable.
            Having attempted to transport myself into the mind of a child in 1803, I fancied empathising with a tree – or rather all trees for ‘A Shared Experience’. This can be construed as whimsy, fantasy, an ecological or a religious piece.
            Finally, a sort of bonus: ‘Angel’s Trumpets’ is based in Tenerife, an island my wife and I have visited often; it is the first chapter of a planned novel in Victorian times concerning a detective duo, Bradbury & Hood. Tenerife features in my novel Blood of the Dragon Trees, which has been republished as An Evil Trade.

Codename Gaby - Collected short stories volume 4

Available as a paperback and e-book from Amazon here

Other books in this series are:

Gifts from a Dead Race – Collected stories vol.1 (science fiction, horror, fantasy, ghost)
Nourish a Blind Life – Collected stories vol.2 (science fiction, horror, fantasy, ghost)
Visitors  Collected stories vol.3 (westerns)
I Celebrate Myself – Collected stories vol.5 (crime and adventure) 

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