Hazel McHaffie

Robert Goddard

Exotic island or private library?

Some writers fly off to exotic islands or remote mountains; some hide away in huts miles from any internet connections or distractions; some spend six months trawling through microfiches and dusty archives. All in the name of authenticity and accuracy. To get in the zone.

Me, I’m knee deep in books which might inform the two stories I’m currently working on. Trips to special locations remain somewhere in the hazy future.

The hypocrisy and mores and prejudices of the upper classes? Julian FellowesSnobs or Past Imperfect will do nicely, thank you.

A bit of terror and psychological trauma? Harlan Coben or Robert Goddard are my go-to choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blend of ethical dilemmas and fiction? Diane Chamberlain, Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf will keep me out of mischief.

Everyday life in bygone eras? Biographies about Dickens, Jane Austen, et al are guiding me nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can pick up and put down, browse or flick, all while I weave in and out of domestic responsibilities and grandparental excursions during the summer season. All without roaming further than my study/library door. No jet lag, no tummy upsets, no grappling with weird currencies and incomprehensible languages and dodgy local mores. And I’m still free to whip into town for Festival performances and assorted exhibitions. Perfect.

 

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Thriller writing

It was probably a throwaway suggestion: ‘I think you should make your next book a thriller‘, but it’s stuck in my mind – especially as it came from someone in the book world whose opinion I respect.

Well, OK, I’m prepared to consider it at least. But first I need to understand what’s involved. Would my ideas thus far fit into this genre? Do I have what it takes to master this kind of writing? So I’ve been delving into the theory; what I’d need to do to create a good thriller. To date I’ve identified seven essentials.

1. Use dread and frightening possibilities to drive the story.

2. Make it action-packed from the outset. Maintain urgency and tension (short paragraphs, cliff hangers, surprises, active verbs, each chapter revealing something new, etc etc) throughout. Include confrontation.

3. Make the stakes high. Give the bad guys seemingly justifiable aims too.

4. Keep the reader guessing till the end.

5. Give the protagonists lots of baggage and emotional complexity, something to fight against and triumph over. Make sure they endure plenty of grief and anxiety along the way. Some characters at least shouldn’t be what they seem to be. Avoid stereotypes.

6. Build dramatic tension by means of multiple points of view.

7. Have an unforgettable take-home message/meaning.

ThrillersOK, some at least of the basics.

I’ve read plenty of thrillers over the years; indeed I’m a big fan of both Harlan Coben and Robert Goddard, but I fancied testing the theory using something new to me … Hmmm, how come I have so many unread thrillers on my shelves? … Right, let’s choose something with rave reviews … an acknowledged masterpiece … and maybe something medical?

Brilliant. Flashback by Michael Palmer, a qualified doctor cum very successful writer? Fits my bill perfectly.

Young neurosurgeon Zackery Iverson has left an understaffed, under-resourced hospital and dedicated team of colleagues to return to the place where he grew up, leaving behind a broken relationship and almost all his belongings. His new workplace, the ultramodern rejuvenated regional hospital in Sterling, New Hampshire, is thriving under the leadership of his older brother Frank. State of the art equipment, a growing team of specialists, ultra modern facilities, a veritable ‘juggernaut of technology’. Sounds impressive, but where is the heart?

Zack becomes increasingly concerned about the policies and politics behind the veneer of success. How can the hospital board own so much property? Why are poor patients shipped elsewhere? Why is a very senior doctor claiming harassment and a campaign to get rid of him? Why can a young patient recall events when he should have been anaesthetised during a routine operation? Why is Zach’s new friend and colleague, Suzanne Cole, so alert and bright immediately after her surgery; and why is she behaving erratically now? And why is Zach’s own brother resurrecting childhood rivalries?

Old doubts and insecurities raise their heads. Is Zach being naive and idealistic? Is the cut and thrust of a modern medical ‘business’ simply not for him? Should he have stayed as a champion of the underprivileged and poor?

Child's disturbed bedA growing sense of dread starts to unravel in his head when he’s called in to work with 8 year old Toby Nelms, a boy who’s so disturbed he’s stopped speaking, is having nightmarish flashbacks, and is wasting away.  Why is this lad so terrified of hospitals? How does he know about Metzenbaums? – only staff working in an operating theatre would use the word. There can be only one answer: somehow Toby was awake during his surgery for an incarcerated inguinal hernia. But how could he be? And how much of his suspicions dare Zach share with Toby’s desperate mother?

Could some of his colleagues be monsters masquerading as caring physicians and nurses? Is his own brother somehow implicated? Just where do the ethical boundaries begin and end?

Yep, I’d say this fits all of the above criteria. Thrilling! Unputdownable. I’m hooked, reading long after I should be tucked up asleep.

FlashbackBut I note something else important. There are lots of characters and subplots in this story – hard to keep a handle on initially, but gradually they become rounded out and emerge as … the shrewd controlling judge … the anaesthetist with a secret unsavoury history … the cardiologist with an abusive ex-husband and a young daughter … the nanny who has served her family faithfully but is now threatened with a nursing home … the nurse who can be bought … the shallow secretary chosen for her loose morals and voluptuous body. This steady drip of detail from various sources adds greatly to the suspense. You’re left wondering just who is the real baddie in all of this? who else is implicated in some way? Everybody seems to have mixed motives, vulnerabilities and dubious characteristics. And the links between them grow ever more tortuous. A tall order to achieve that level of complex interweaving. Could I manage it? Right at this moment I’m not at all sure I could.

Having a take-home message is less of a problem to me. In this case: how far would any of us go to uphold our personal moral standards? What if it became a question of love and loyalty over rules and systems? Familiar? Yep. My kind of territory.

OK. Let’s try again with another novel, another author … a medical mystery-cum-thriller, Damaged by Pamela Callow. Again stories within stories, lots of intertwined characters with mixed agendas, false trails. A blond dog-walker, a lawyer with a haunting past, an inscrutable judge with a murdered daughter, a rejected policeman … By now I’m hugely impressed by authors who can hold all this together so successfully.

One thing is definitely in my favour. Medicine’s a hotbed of ethical quandaries – that’s why I became a novelist in the first place, of course. All those folders containing ideas and research material amassed over the years? Ideal material for intrigue and mystery and dark deeds.

So, what do I think now? Well, I’m not ruling out a thriller this time around. Indeed I’m already trying to work out some kind of grid that would make my story-line work. But, boy, what an undertaking. I might be gone some time!!

 

 

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Literary Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides book, Middlesex, is one of my top twenty favourites, so I naturally pounced on his third novel, The Marriage Plot, when I saw it in a bargain book shop for £1. But … oh dear … it was only my Mastermind rule, (‘I’ve started so I’ll finish‘), that kept me reading. It’s very long (406 pages of tiny type), very dense, and for me not very satisfying. I try to be positive in recognition of the colossal amount of work that goes into writing a book, but this time I’m afraid I have to share more disappointment than praise.

Eugenides bookEssentially the story is of a love triangle set in Brown University in the 1980s with three idealistic young people in love with books and ideas. Leonard Bankhead is a clever scientist and charismatic loner. Madeleine Hanna is intensely attracted to him. But her old friend, theology student Mitchell Grammaticus is convinced Madeleine is destined to be with him. So far so standard. But this is no classic Victorian romance, and the book is literary rather than commercial fiction; I knew that, so why was I less than thrilled?

Eugenides is without doubt an accomplished author – he’s won prestigious prizes too – and he set the bar extremely high with his first novel, Middlesex. In The Marriage Plot his inclusion of wide-ranging and erudite detail – of place, literature, mental health, science, psychology, politics, history – is impressive. There was even an aspect of the story that was of particular interest to me: the unravelling of an illness, bipolar disorder, or as it was back then, manic depression, which he handles with enviable authenticity and sensitivity. I’ve seen the devastation this illness can cause, and Eugenides has captured its modus operandi without allowing it to override the central narrative thrust … goodness, I’ve adopted ponderous language myself now! Sorry.

There’s plenty of humour in the book too. At one point an eccentric elderly female scientist is interviewed following the announcement that she’s just won the Nobel prize:

‘Dr MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?’

‘I was asleep. Just like I am right now.’

‘Could you tell us what your scientific work is all about?’

‘I could. But then you’d be asleep.’

‘What do you plan to do with the money?’

‘Spend it.’

And plenty of clever throw-away lines:

‘ … he didn’t so much run the class as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality.’

‘… moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe …’

‘Chaouen was painted light blue to blend in with the sky. Even the flies couldn’t find it.’

But as I ploughed laboriously through it I could identify increasingly with the heroine’s sentiments. Early on she attends a Semiotics class and gets bogged down in the abstruse use of language. She goes to the library to grab an ordinary comprehensible nineteenth century novel ‘to restore herself to sanity’. Ah, here was a story she could understand without effort, with people in it, something happening to them in a place resembling the world as she knew it. ‘How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!’

At times with Eugenides’ book I felt myself drowning in the complexity of the allusions and profound thoughts. It just felt like too much hard work with too little reward. And I found it hard to care about the three central characters. Yes, I too wanted to escape into wickedly enjoyable narrative. How very low brow of me! But hey, come on, I did persevere to the bitter end. And the knitting for good causes grew apace.

As a reward to myself I bought a stack of more promising reading from another charity sale (it’s been a very busy week with special events for three charities I’m involved with). Goddard, Grisham and Coben are tried and tested favourite authors. Baldacci I’ve yet to sample. Joys in store … mmm.

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In praise of Robert Goddard

I’ve just had the great indulgence of three long days secreted away on trains travelling the length of the country, keeping myself deliberately out of communication by phone or email. Hours and hours lost in books! Bliss.

You may remember one of my New Year resolutions was to acknowledge brilliance when I found it. This week I want to sing the praises of one of Britain’s best mystery writers whose books were my companions on the said journeys.

Robert Goddard is one of those authors whose skill leaves you reeling. His debut novel, Past Caring, is in my personal top five. I rarely read a book twice – too many books, too little time – but this one I did. And I was riveted both times.

The hero is flawed – a disgraced teacher, a history graduate, with a failed marriage and no prospects. His help is enlisted by a shadowy figure in Madeira, to research a 70-year old mystery. The backdrop is the Liberal Government’s constitutional crisis just before the First World War and the Suffragette movement, and in Past Caring the historical context really comes alive. Fluid writing, intricate plotting with loads of twists, believable characterisation – a totally gripping read.

Take no FarewellGoddard’s fond of flawed protagonists. Take no Farewell, another favourite, features a failing architect – a deliberate ploy to enable the author to indulge his love of architecture of that period. Geoffrey Staddon has never forgotten his first important commission, to build the best house he ever designed. But when life is disintegrating around him he reads that the love of his life, Consuela, the mistress of that house, is on trial for murder by poisoning. Remorse and shame come flooding back. He absolutely has to save her from the gallows. Twists and turns, revelations and secrets, keep the reader on tenterhooks to the very end.

So what can we say of Robert Goddard overall? He specialises in suspense and intrigue, unlikely heroes, altered reality, redemption. He’s a stickler for authenticity in his locations and history. He’s the kind of author who does his research thoroughly – but he has the skill to make the topics accessible to the uninitiated. The reader is left with the choice to pursue the contexts to whatever level of detail they choose, not doing so doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story itself. And the range of subjects this writer weaves through his varied stories is a measure of his own great interest in life in all its forms and vagaries.

But if you like simple linear plots – he’s not for you. Just when you think you’ve grasped the way things fit, he spins you back out of control again. Relationships, eras, acts and consequences, they’re all juggled simultaneously. And if you find it hard to hold names in your head, you’ll need a very large piece of paper to list all the characters and how they fit … or did, until the plot twisted for the umpteenth time. But if you love Prague or Madeira or Devon or wherever the book is set, you’ll find his narrative so evocative of the place you’ll be walking those streets with him.

Two reviews, I think, sum him up:
‘Combines the expert suspense manipulation skills of a Daphne du Maurier romance with those of a John le Carré thriller’ New York Times

‘His narrative power, strength of characterisation and superb plots, plus the ability to convey the atmosphere of the period quite brilliantly, make him compelling reading’ Books

I’ve been adding to my Goddard collection for years and was recently delighted to find several tucked away in a National Trust property bookstall, with an honesty box next to them. Pearls indeed. OK, OK, OK, I know that authors should blaze a trail for writers everywhere receiving a just reward for their labour. Of course they should! But I really couldn’t resist these. And the money did go to a worthy cause. I hope Robert Goddard would be somewhat mollified by this tribute to him.

I’ve never met him but there’s a fascinating interview with him on //www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTAXug1lJBE&feature=related
in which he explains why he writes as he does. And he interviews as well as he writes. Enjoy!

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