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Saturday 30 April 2016

Writing – research - Beyond the Oxus

Most writers need to do some research for their books. That research shouldn’t be simply to insert blocks of text because it’s interesting, in the manner of Dan Brown. It should be used to get a feel for a place, a time, a people. There are countless books available to delve into to obtain details about the flora, fauna and culture, to lend credibility to the fiction. We’re not copying slavishly, or plagiarizing swathes of text, but ‘getting the feel’ to convey the ‘reality’.

My latest work in progress, set in Afghanistan in 1979-1980 has involved a huge amount of research reading. Yes, I’ve travelled through Pakistan and up the Khyber, but I haven’t been to Afghanistan itself, though that land has held a fascination as long back as the release of the film, King of the Khyber Rifles!

One of the books I’ve read is Beyond the Oxus by Monica Whitlock (2002). As a BBC correspondent for central Asia, Whitlock has gleaned a great deal from eye-witnesses. It’s a fascinating history of the central Asians, the people of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Inevitably, the book also concerns Afghanistan.
Besides personal accounts, Whitlock gives us fascinating history of a relatively unknown region.

Here, in 973, was born one of the greatest Muslim scholars, Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, called Biruni, thankfully. ‘His study of the rotation of the earth was revolutionary. He calculated longitude and latitude, observed solar and lunar eclipses in detail, and was an early cartographer, mathematician, physicist, geographer and anthropologist. He spoke Aramaic, Greek and Sanskrit as well as Arabic and Persian.’ (p14)

Another important figure was ‘Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa, who disseminated through his treatise written in Baghdad in about 825, the Indian counting system that included decimal places and the concept of zero. This system reached Muslim Spain about a hundred and fifty years later, his treatise being translated into Latin in 1120 by an Englishman, Robert of Chester, who visited Spain to study mathematics…’ It took some seven hundred years after that treatise before the concept was widely used in Europe. He brought us the word ‘algebra’, not to mention Arabic ‘sefr’ which gave us ‘cipher’ and ‘zero’. (p15)

There are several tragic stories about lives ruined. One individual is Damulla Sharif, who fled to Afghanistan in 1927, along with almost half the population of his town. Some seven years later he chanced returning and crossed the border, but he was caught. ‘Before he was taken away, he made a hurried bonfire of his hundred-book library, rather than give them the pleasure. He spent the next twenty years in and out of prison, accused at one point of writing “anti-Soviet poetry”. By the time he was finally released in 1955 he could neither see nor walk properly, and was tormented by the memory of his burnt books. He resumed his studies none the less…’ He worked as a night watchman and in his free time taught and wrote poetry. (p97)

When Ella Ivanova was two, ‘Stalin ordered the evacuation of her village… about 450 miles south-east of Moscow, a solidly German corner of Russia ever since the first pioneers arrived at the invitation of Catherine the Great…’  Ella heard from her mother and sister what happened. They had 24 hours to get out, leaving their cow, and everything but the clothes they wore. They killed a pig, cut it up and took it with them. They were taken by train to Siberia, and her father was put in a concentration camp while her mother brought up four children in a one-room hut. Her mother was almost killed in a fight over a radish. When their teacher left, the replacement never arrived, she was eaten by wolves on the road. ‘Wolves hardly ever attack humans, and it tells you how hungry even they were.’

After Stalin’s death the family was reunited and headed for Tajikistan to find work. ‘We found a paradise on earth here!’ (pp99/100)

Stalin forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of families, many to Soviet Central Asia, presumably for fear that they would collaborate with the Nazis or the Japanese. Indeed, ‘compulsory migration had begun in the 1920s, as a means of moving labour to where it was needed.’  In order to increase the production of cotton, whole villages of Tajiks were moved to the plains, a forced migration that lasted from 1952 until the 1970s. Remarkably, one man hid his small library under the hay in the cattle shed and even when forcibly migrated, he took his books with him. Many had to construct their living quarters, families perished and starvation was normal; the workers didn’t get paid for six years. ‘They were set to work in the plantations in one of the hottest inhabited places on earth, and forbidden to return to their mountain homes for fifteen years.’ (p109)

This is but a very brief overview/review of an interesting book that takes the history up to 2002.  What shines through is the indomitable spirit of people to surmount the depredations of despots, to survive in spite of incredible hardship throughout a turbulent history.

Recommended reading. 

A shorter version of this review has been posted on Amazon.

Friday 29 April 2016

Writing – research - displaced persons-1

Refugees from conflict have been in the news quite a while. Sadly, it is nothing new, though the scale and the destination of the refugees have altered over time.

While reading To the Frontier by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1984) I came across a number of passages relating to the thousands of Afghan refugees who fled across the border to Pakistan, long before 9/11 and its global repercussions.

Some were not fleeing actual conflict, but they were fleeing for their lives. Because they didn’t conform to an ideology. In this case, the ideology was Marxism, as espoused by the Soviet invaders and their acolytes.
I’m paraphrasing here, mostly:

This concerns a professor who happened to be a dean of literature and social sciences at the university in Kabul when the communist coup took place in April 1978. As time passed, the atmosphere became charged, with aggressive Marxists making life intolerable and work untenable.

When the Russians arrived at the end of 1979, it got worse. The professor became part of an intellectual underground… ‘holding on to certain verities whose validity had been tempered with time; truths which had remained proven after many different kinds of revolution in many lands.’ (p191)

One by one, members of his fellowship had been arrested. The news filtered back to the survivors that, one after the other, their old colleagues had been tortured, had died. The same fate would almost certainly have befallen him if one of his friends talked. His friend had been arrested on the information supplied by one of his own students. As it happened, his friend was tortured to make him implicate others but he stayed silent and died without betraying anyone.

Still, the net was closing in and one night soon after his friend’s death, in February 1980, the professor was visited by some mujahedeen who helped him escape.

The professor only took his reading glasses; everything else he left behind, including his wife and son, who were spirited out of the country three months later.

History can teach lessons, if people bother to heed history. Career, family, and even life – destroyed because you didn’t conform to an ideology. Now, whether that’s fascism, communism, Marxism, or even political correctness, it’s immoral.

Next example of displaced persons will be gleaned from Beyond the Oxus by Monica Whitlock.

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