The Making of Joe Palliser – A Writer’s Notes.

These studies seem to interest my long-suffering followers, and if they are not too boring I will try to do more of them.

I am referencing Hallbury Summer because I have just completed the revised version and the character is still fresh in my mind, and, hopefully, in some of yours.

So why this article?

I make no exaggerated claims for my writing ability; however, I sense from the feedback I receive that the believability of my characters is one of my strengths, so I thought I might explore the ‘method’ with you here?   I wonder how my practices compare with your own?

First, can we agree there has to be a ‘method’?  I learned early in my theatre school training that inspiration is very nice when you can get it, but if you are sitting in front of a keyboard at six o’clock in the morning with a raging headache, it is likely to be beyond your grasp.  For all the many mornings like that, you need a method.

In establishing that ‘method’ I’m not ashamed to admit that I call upon Stanislavsky, either.  Although ‘An Actor Prepares’ must be out of print by several decades it still has much to say to us.  At the very least, an ability to ‘talk myself into’ a character is an asset.  I use it habitually.

So, what does Joe Palliser look like?  I don’t know!   He is my lead character, therefore whether I am writing about him in the first or third person, he is ‘me’.  No, he doesn’t necessarily share any of my personal peccadilloes or conform in any way to myself, but for the purposes of the book I am inside him looking out, and unless I am obsessed with mirrors, I don’t need to know what I look like.   Let me explain why that’s important.  I want my reader to treat Joe in just the same way – to see the world from his POV.   If I tie readers down by a description he becomes a chessboard figure.  They will be better satisfied by developing their own picture.

In fact, I need to know remarkably little about Joe:  his backstory, for instance, is very limited.  He was in the care of a babysitter when his parents were involved in a fatal car accident.    Apparently his parents were moderately comfortable financially, but do I need to know if they were doctors or dockers?  No.  Only the car accident is important, because it orphaned him and may or may not have some bearing on his personality (this in contrast to his younger brother Michael, who was in the car at the time and physically as well as mentally damaged).

From my first introduction of his name my reader is building up an image of Joe in their minds.  It is my job as author to develop that image by introducing the third dimension –lifting him from the page – and the greatest tool at my disposal for that is dialogue.

Dialogue: do you know what I really hate?  The self-indulgent author who cannot resist making his character bombard the reader with his personal opinions, or who feels compelled to give a history lesson in the midst of a piece of dialogue!   Nothing disrupts a readers’ enjoyment more:  in life no-one will accost you on the street with a two or three hundred word vent.  It just doesn’t happen, and if it ever should, I suggest you run.   I guess my recommendation would be if you feel you have something to say, choose the subtlest (and briefest) manner of saying it, and reserve it for the author’s voice, not the voice of a character.

Dialogue should, in my opinion, be rounded and natural.  Don’t edit out the monosyllabics, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of everyday speech, just for the sake of a word count.  Speech should be reflective, a mirror to the way normal people speak to each other; it should flow, taking the plot forward or setting up a third party character.  To me, using a dialect for my lead character is a big stonking ‘NO’, but that doesn’t apply to ancillary characters for whom dialect, in its broadness and sophistication, can be a useful personality guide.  However, this proviso must remain:  I must describe my other characters as Joe sees them.

If I were to wax further upon my treatment of characters that surround the lead I would tell you how I often make sketches of them, and certainly talk to them as if I were Joe.  They join me in my room as I introduce them, and if they are interesting enough to Joe, they stay.

You see, the great joy of writing and its mystery is that moment of magic between the fingers and the page – the undeniable ‘something’ that make Joe, or my other central figures come alive.  Are they good or evil, weak or strong?  I don’t know.  Let the reader decide.  Are they real in the reader’s eyes?   That is a question only the amber spyglass can answer.

But I had fun, didn’t I?

The revised version of Hallbury Summer is now available in both eBook and paperback versions.   You can find it  here, or by clicking the cover image in the sidebar.

If I can be of assistance by sharing experiences with other writers, aspiring or otherwise, please contact me.

Chroma keying


A breathless moment: two action heroes run for their lives through corridors of a building while, behind them, a bomb is ticking down through its final seconds.  They find their exit, sprint away from danger as the ticking stops.   In leaping for cover they seem to be thrown forward by an explosion which consumes the building and lights up the entire screen. Miraculously not even scorched, they continue in pursuit of the pantomime villain behind all the mayhem.

Of course, the explosion scene is an illusion.  Our heroes have performed their leap towards camera in front of a green or blue backcloth.  The pyrotechnics boys fill in the background afterwards.

The result is very convincing.  It works perfectly, as long as one of the components of the foreground shot does not share a colour with the screen.  In other words, if you are working in front of a green screen, don’t wear the same shade of green.  Why?  Because that portion of you will vanish from the finished shot.  You’ll disappear like Chevy Chase in ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’!

The same is true of life, really – something it has taken me a long time to understand.

Comedy derived from humiliation or humour which relies upon misfortune has never seemed funny to me.  Characters who are loud, wisecracking or patently insincere (include most politicians and ‘fixers’ in that category) are anathema.  They jar my consciousness so profoundly I often cannot remain in the same space.  I will switch off or walk away rather than continue the conversation, while others will be inveigled or even charmed.  How is this so?

I would be the last to invent a crutch for myself by saying my childhood was not a happy one, or excuse my misspent youth and my disastrous first marriage as the fallout from a relationship that was broken.   We all bear responsibility, right from the beginning, for our misfortunes and frequently contribute to them.  I do not believe in fate.

It takes the gift of maturity to look back upon each slight, each humiliation, each vicissitude of fortune and put it in its proper place within the background picture of our past.  We all do it.  Yet it remains a living image, and if we are truthful there will be nights when, in the darkness and the silence, we recall those times as if they were yesterday.  We re-live them, we ask ourselves how, if we had done this or said that, our future might have been altered.  Some might call this regret, I do not.  Only if those arguments persist in the light of day can they be considered so.  Otherwise, we are simply looking back at the green screen, and reminding ourselves of the colours we cannot wear.

My green screen sequences – those I find most comfortable – are not, for the most part, violent or contentious.  The humour I enjoy does not insult, the characters I like, the people I like, bear the light of humanity in their eyes.  They know how to pity and how to love.  Those who deceive or demean find a colour in common with those from my experience and they take a part of me away.  My reaction might be mere distaste, or more extreme.

They might arouse anger in me; no, not in a violent way, or as is the case with some, comically  (Basil Fawlty is one of my favourite comedy characters, by the way.  I’ve met my share of real ones).  No, this is more a constructive anger – one which wishes to correct the wrong, and, as a writer, to express a layer of emotion in my portrayal that tints the sentence or nuances the phrase.  If I have a skill, it is that.  My missing colours are layered upon the page.

Of course, my explosive scene is an illusion.  My characters are unharmed by it, they move through the plot, contemporary to their time.  But I am watching the background shot, and finding them from among the missing colours in me.



A Writing Challenge: the thinking behind ‘A Place That Was Ours’.

In the Wear Valley of County Durham, there is a town called Bishop Auckland, and Bishop Auckland has a bridge.   A one-time viaduct, it bore the weight of rail traffic emanating from the coal and ore producing mines of the upper valley.  Now it is a road bridge.  The mines are gone, but the isolated communities that fed them with labour remain; villages without hearts, fossils of an extinct culture slowly re-establishing themselves as satellites to the cities.  It is this society, or an aspect of it, which forms the backcloth for ‘A Place that was Ours’.

The bridge was my start point for ‘A Place that was Ours’.   In fact, my working title for the first chapter was ‘The Bridge’.   The whole novel is a challenge to me and my philosophy that a writer, in composing a book should avoid planning as much as possible.

Let me explain.  This philosophy is not new.  I am not a planner.  In the past, though, I have always had a basic idea of how my plot would run, and the genre (how I hate that word) into which it should fit.  I retained two luxuries; I could trash the whole thing if it did not ‘work’, and I could ‘mess around’ with the completed project – introduce flashbacks, alter characters, eliminate inconsistencies, and so on.  And then, of course, I had the ability to edit; all before I offered the result as a completed book.  In my view, this is an easy way out and there are dangers implied.

I have a hard drive full of discontinued first chapters that could have been finished works, had I committed myself to them.  I have a book I completed years ago, so full of alterations, superimposed characters and corrections the original vision I had is lost, and so, by implication, is the book.

Not this time, not this book.  All the fun, all the adventure is back.  My characters are taking me where they want to go, not where I elect to put them.  I am posting each chapter as I write it.  There is no fully honed work waiting in the wings, to be transcribed episode by episode.  Chapter Five at the moment is only two paragraphs long.

I had – or have – no basic idea to work from.  I started with a bridge, the bridge depicted above.  That was the only solid element to work from.  I had no characters: two kids I saw walking up the road past my house became Chas and Sue, the rest of the dramatis personae have gathered around them naturally as friends and family will do.   A first trap, because writing so freehandedly invites a huge cast.  I am tempted to add someone new each time a situation seems to require it, whereas any theatre producer will tell me to do the reverse, to re-use an existing character because the audience, or reader, will accept them more easily.

Timeline, surprisingly, is the most difficult aspect so far, in a couple of ways.  Having established that Chas is my hero/antihero I may not need to know what ultimately happens to him, but I do have to place the completed work within a timeframe.   It needs balance.  Ten chapters on Chas’s last year at school (don’t worry, there won’t be) are far too much if the plot is likely to span twenty years, yet I cannot miss out the experiences of that year if they shape his character and dictate later events.   And within that I need pace and rhythm, or the story to becomes absolutely linear – diary mode, with no diversions or back stories.

I have to be wary that awful word ‘genre’ does not tag the piece as a ‘North Country’ novel, with all that implies.   The backcloth I describe above generates an image for some, a label I am anxious to avoid.  Casterley is NOT Bishop Auckland, any more than Chas is me, or Sue’s character relates to someone I have known.   The action of this book could as easily take place almost anywhere – in London, for example, because the greater part of London is a bloated version of Casterley, and Chas and Sue could as easily be Cockneys.  The book would contain more violence and less generosity of spirit, but it would work.

All right – BORING!  Let’s finish this off now, and go for tea.

What will happen to Chas, or Sue?  I don’t know.  I can only tell you it will make a book, and I hope it will be a good book.  That’s what is so exciting for me.  I can write a life that is subject to the same vicissitudes of fortune as your life, or mine.  Along came a bus?  What was that line from a lyric of John Lennon’s?   ‘Life is something that happens to you while you are busy making other plans’.

That’s it!   Mad!   No plans!    Another episode early in the New Year.

Happy New Year, everybody!