Britta Bolt, Brown Cafés and Amsterdam.

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Britta+Bolt-detailIt’s been around 18 years since I last wandered the streets of Amsterdam for Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) but the imagery in Britta Bolt’s Pieter Posthumus novels brings the memories flooding back….

Writing here for LifeOfCri.me, Britta Boehler and Rodney Bolt, the duo behind Britta Bolt talk to us about Amsterdam’s ‘Brown Cafés’

The ‘brown café’ or ‘brown bar’ is an Amsterdam institution. De Dolle Hond, in our Posthumus books, is a fine example. The ‘brown’, people will tell you, is because of tobacco smoke that has for eons stained walls and ceiling. Shift a picture frame in an old establishment and the chocolate-coloured wallpaper appears white beneath it. Some of these bars – like de Dolle Hond – date back to the Golden Age, when the Dutch had a saying: “If a Hollander should be bereft of his pipe of tobacco he could not blissfully enter heaven”. In today’s more healthy world, the dark wall-colouring is more likely to be the result of a coat of paint. But the basic ingredients of a brown café remain: wood-panelling, dark wooden furniture, a burnished bar. Décor is unfussy – though sometimes it’s been around for centuries, so you might be sitting beneath a priceless lamp, beside a time-stained oil painting. Something startlingly modern may join the flotsam and jetsam of past years, but the word ‘designer’ is anathema. There’ll be wooden barrels along one wall, perhaps, old prints, posters for a local theatre, quirky bric-a-brac reflecting one person’s obsession with football, love of Amsterdam, or downright curious taste – for these cafés often belong to the individuals who serve you. Some have been in the same families for generations. All very like De Dolle Hond. Among our real-life favourite brown cafés are De Dokter, which Rodney found closed one evening because the owner was at home putting up Christmas decorations, and De Englese Reet, which, because the eldest sons of each successive generation of the owner’s family are all given the same name, has had a barman called ‘Teun’ for nearly 100 years.

 Published by Mulholland, Lives Lost is available to buy now.  Read the LifeOfCri.me review here….

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Blog Tour: What She Left by T R Richmond

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What She Left is a cleverly constructed fractured timeline novel, that re-builds the life of deceased journalist Alice Salmon, using the digital footprint left by herself and those she knew.  As part of his blog tour, T R Richmond writes for LifeOfCri.me about using multiple character first person narration.

Writing in the first-person offers benefits and challenges to a writer.

It allows you to really get inside the head of a character, exploring their brain’s innermost workings. The downside is you can only ever include what’s in their head. If your character hasn’t thought it, seen it or done it, it’s cheating to include it. 

When I was planning What She Left, I wanted to have my cake and eat it. I wanted to see the world as all my characters did. So I wrote the book from multiple first-person perspectives. 

This has always struck me as the most honest form of narration, because in reality we’re all the first-person narrators of our own lives. 

Our own take on events, our own view of the world and our narrative seems sacrosanct to us, but it runs alongside everyone else’s – at times diverging from theirs, at times converging with theirs. Some facts are inalienable, but we all see things differently – hence disputes over so-called ‘facts’. Hence why life contains so many grey areas. 

Such issues of perspective and reliability are as relevant in journalism as they are in fiction. When it comes to choosing which news to read, listen to or watch, we have to ask ourselves: Whose version of events is the most accurate? We have to ask ourselves: Who can we trust? We have to ask ourselves: are we looking for our existing world view to be reinforced?

The internet has been a game-changer when it comes to the reliability of news. Anyone can share information now and, while this “democratisation” brings benefits such as quickening the dissemination of news and challenging the exclusive cabal of information providers, it also means we’re exposed to heavily subjective material. 

Many journalists are as passionate as ever about objectivity and balance, but as “consumers” of news it’s vital we ask who the narrator is of any particular piece of work. What’s their agenda? Because, however objective a piece purports to be, if you follow it back far enough, it’ll be the brainchild of someone with inherently subjective opinions. The solution, perhaps, is to develop broad tastes when it comes to journalism, as we’re always advised to with fiction. That at least gives us a counterbalance, exposing us to multiple sides of any particular argument. Remember, in journalism as in life, there’s no such thing as an entirely reliable narrator. Hence why fiction written in the first-person can feel so authentic.

T. R. Richmond

 

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What She Left by T. R. Richmond is published by Michael Joseph on 23rd April, priced £12.99

Meet Professor J Cooke on Tumblr and Alice Salmon on Facebook

Anthony Quinn:- The nuances of using fact to create fiction

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Anthony Quinn, author of critically acclaimed debut novel Disappeared, returns with his new novel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, the first in a series of three historical novels set in Ireland during WWI and the War of Independence. Here he talks to LifeOfCri.me about the nuances of using fact to create fiction.

AQ photo from Mysterious PressI’m very much a believer in writing first and researching later. The danger of writing historical fiction is that as a writer you run the risk of disappearing down a wormhole into another era, never making it back with a clear-cut, compelling tale to relate. I’ve been obsessed with WB Yeats and the Sligo setting for years, and in writing The Blood Dimmed Tide the temptation was to succumb to excess and include a rich tapestry of historical minutia.

However, writing historical fiction, especially a mystery story, should be like steering a boat with a leak in high seas. Many loved items have to be chucked overboard with every page you write. Amusing anecdotes and fascinating details that don’t animate your principal characters and move the plot along have to be discarded with impunity.

For this reason, I resorted to thumbing through Yeats’ biographies only when there was a gap in the plot that desperately needed filling, or a scene that required fleshing out with something concrete. That sense of urgency which comes with keeping the literary boat from capsizing at all costs is a protection against procrastination and getting lost in the past.

Another great challenge in writing The Blood Dimmed Tide was remaining faithful to the historical record of Yeats and his life-long muse Maud Gonne. I was uneasy with the idea that I was possibly doing them a great disservice by entangling them in a plot involving occult societies, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen.

However, Yeats has been much derided for his ‘creepy’ obsession with the supernatural, and his interest in the magical powers that might be acquired through esoteric knowledge has alarmed many literary critics over the years. It eased my conscience to think that I was at least portraying this side of his character sympathetically. This was what I promised WB Yeats at the start of writing The Blood Dimmed Tide. Whether or not I delivered is another matter.

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I hope I am saved by the fact that many of Yeats’ friends found him unknowable. Irish writer Sean O’Faolain famously said of him: “There was no Yeats. I watched him invent himself.” In that sense, he is impossible to capture within the covers of a biography, which is a great problem for his biographers, but a golden opportunity for a novelist.

Yeats will always remain an enigma. He was one of a group of extraordinary and mesmerising figures that made London at the turn of the century an emporium of exotic cults and psychic societies. He was the closest thing we have to a supernatural sleuth, always seeking answers, always probing the evidence before him, always odd and unpredictable in his behaviour – which I hope makes him the perfect hero for a mystery story, especially one that involves ghosts, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen.

The Blood Dimmed Tide is published by No Exit Press and is available now in paperback and as an e-book.

Back To School: The Art of Thriller Writing by Dreda Say Mitchell

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As part of the blog tour for her new thriller Vendetta, Dreda Say Mitchell talks to LifeOfCri.me about the art of thriller writing.

Dreda I’ve worn a number of hats in my career and one of them has been teaching. In the classroom, one of the favourite catchphrases (after folding your arms) is “Now children – what have we learned today?” Another hat I wear is as a journalist and we’re all familiar with the top 5 tips or lessons feature. Meanwhile, in my work as an author, I’ve shifted direction with my new thriller ‘Vendetta’. What better way to prove that I can multi-task than by compiling a top 5 lessons I’ve learned from writing thrillers?

1. Characters

Characterisation is an important building block of any kind of fiction but in thrillers it’s an essential feature. Thriller readers tend to read a lot of books and they’ve got an eagle eye for cardboard cut outs and stereotypes. Heroes and villains may (or may not) be exaggerated versions of people you meet in everyday life but they still need to be grounded in reality. The question to pose is not, would a character behave in a certain way – but could they? In ‘Vendetta’, our hero Mac might go well beyond the bounds set by his job and personality – but is he a believable person?

2. Plot

A well-crafted thriller plot is rather like a Swiss watch and fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. It needs to be compelling enough to keep the reader hooked and provide them with evidence to work with, while at the same not cheating by dodging the rules of the genre. This is a very difficult trick to pull off. In ‘Vendetta’, Mac’s lover has been murdered and he has to find out by whom and why. The reader has to be there to help and work it out along with him but to share his shocks and surprises.

 3. Pace

Literary writers are allowed to spend ten pages describing a situation in which nothing in particular happens or theorising about the human condition but that doesn’t work in thrillers. The reader expects the author to get a move on. One classic method of doing this is to give your hero a set time limit to solve his case before it’s too late. In ‘Vendetta’, Mac’s got less than a day. The clock is ticking.

4. Series

A thriller doesn’t need to be part of a series to be effective, but as the saying goes, it helps. Once a reader decides a character is working for them, they like to learn more about them and see how they operate in different circumstances. I decided a series was how I wanted to write but I wasn’t interested in the lone hero model. In addition to Mac, there are two other main characters, Rio and Calum along with lesser characters. In the next book, ‘Death Trap’ I turn my attention to Rio as the main protagonist and in the novel to follow that, it’s Calum. When I decide some of minor characters have legs, there’ll be reappearing too.

5. The X Factor

We’re probably all familiar with people we know who seem to have it all. The ideal spouse and family, the great job, the interesting life – and yet it doesn’t seem to work for them and they’re booked with counsellors on a regular basis. Thrillers can be rather like that. Compelling characters, plot, lean, taut and effective writing, all of which leads up to that classic showdown in the final chapter. Yet it doesn’t fly, your attention wanders and it becomes one of those books you leave lying around, always meaning to finish. The frustrating thing for writers and readers alike is that no really knows why this is. I’m hoping that ‘Vendetta’ has the X Factor

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VENDETTA by Dreda Say Mitchell is out now in paperback and eBook, published by Hodder, £6.99. For more information visit www.dredasaymitchell.com and follow Dreda on twitter @DredaMitchell

Find out what I thought of Vendetta, with the LifeOfCri.me review here