Wilbur Smith’s ‘Shout at the Devil’: A Book Where Comedy Turns to Tragedy


I have been getting cold feet (very appropriate given the recent icy weather) about my short novel based round the 1819 Peterloo Massacre .  Of course, mine will be only one obscure publication out  of many books, articles, plays or whatever that will surely be released to mark the bicentenary  – I know there’s a film coming out. Still, that’s not the point; I feel I owe it to those who were slaughtered and the hundreds who were maimed or injured on that terrible day in Manchester’s history to make that novel as good as I possibly can.

If you’re just writing for fun, then it’s different. If the general response is: ‘Must Try Harder’ – Well, that smarts, but you haven’t let anyone’ s memory down.

Oddly enough, I found out how I should best write this piece by a piece of serendipity or synchronicity (now I’ve used up my quota of long words for the day). So, this post isn’t really about my latest project, but a novel I read a long time ago, Wilbur Smith’s novel ‘Shout at the Devil’.

I woke up the other day, with a strong memory of one of the first adult books I had read in my mind.

That was a story of two freebooting adventurers in German East Africa just before World War I, a larger than life Irish American and his none-to-bright diffident English upper class young partner – and the love affair between the callow young man and the first character’s daughter.

I was twelve at the time, and my family were doing up those rambling old country houses in which I spent most of my childhood. I remember coming on this book in the room we used to call ‘the little sitting room’ – in those days when  great old houses were cheap and  unfashionable, that room was approximately the size of a ten million pound flat in central London these days. My father had taken the book out of the library –and seeing it on the side tablet by his favourite armchair, and bored with sampling the historical romances my mother took out, I sat down and  began to read this male adventure story.

I was drawn into the fast moving action. I laughed at the ridiculous letter which the rascally larger-than-life freebooter had written as a supposed reference from Kaiser Wilhelm II,  ‘Kaiser Bill’ himself.  He solemnly shows this to his prospective partner in order to persuade him to become, as a British citizen –  for this was, of course, in the days when the sun never set on the British Empire – the leader of the expedition.

Even then I knew that the slaughter of elephants for ivory was wrong. I didn’t like that aspect at all, and thought it to some extent contained racial stereotypes.  Also, the murder of the young couple’s baby was a very horrible part of the plot.  However, I  found myself oddly touched by the love story which forms part of the plot in this adventure story.

My recollection is that it only briefly sketched in, but after those romantic novels, I found that ‘less is more’.  I wanted at least twice as much, just as you do with jam in a trifle if someone’s skimped on it, whereas with too much of it, you find it clogs the appetite (well, I do, anyway).

I remembered that the callow partner goes down with malaria, and that the two renegades turn up at the senior freebooter’s house, where the daughter nurses him. That is, of course, the archetypical circumstance in which a man falls in love with a woman – but I remember it as working brilliantly here. I remembered the mention of the young man’s eyes being ‘Misty grey, and as unfocused as those of a newborn puppy’ and  looking into them, the heroine ‘felt something squirm in her stomach.’

My recollection is, that after that, the details of their courtship weren’t given much, though I also recall that the daughter is depicted as very determined, and the upper class youth turned bandit as shy, and that that she made most of the running.

I also remembered that while the first part of the story is full of comedy verging on slapstick, soon launching into high adventure, it later becomes extremely violent and tragic. I was really upset by the ending.

Anyway, on the strength of these details, and the fact that I remembered that I knew it had been turned into a film decades since with Roger Moore in it,  despite having managed to forget the title and the author, I was able to track it down.  I was quite proud of that.

It is odd how the unconscious works. I realised that the structure of this novel is the one I must use, in writing my own: ‘What begins as a comic escapade gives way to chilling horror’. I wonder if my unconscious knew that, when it prompted me to think of it?


I am also, of course, and despite this deluge of research I must do, going to re-read this novel. I have often wondered if, when we re-read a story that touched us when we were young, it retains some of its magic for us, because it revives for us the feelings that we had when we were part of our family of origin, with all the world before us, and our feelings still new and untried. I suspect that is often so. Yet, when I re-read this, I think I will find that murder of the baby even more awful now.



Those Necessary Sympathetic, Rounded Characters: A Classic Novel Without Them

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaIn my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.

On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that  is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book.  It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’

I see.  Thanks for that.

Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?

Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.

Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of  historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.

I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.

The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the  ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:


‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’


This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’.  He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.

Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless,  and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.

This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.

Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.

At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.

Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.

Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted.  Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.

Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’

The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious.  However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.

Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off  an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill –  exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.

In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and  finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that  they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.

True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.

It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.

…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’.  There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle;  much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky.  I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).

Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing,  developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?

Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here


Cardboard Characters, Lovable, Rounded Characters, Larger Than Life Characters,and Mere Ciphers: How Sympathetic Must a Character Be to Keep You Reading?

Well, every Austen reader knows what scene this depicts. ‘She is tolerable,but not handsome enough to tempt me…’

My PC – which groaned and collapsed –  is finally working again (looks about nervously, scared to tempt fate). Someone has even offered me  an unwanted laptop. Incredibly, I’ve never had one, and I am terrified by the look of those Ipads.

Anyway, in my last post, I was talking about my new fledged writer friend being upset at the savagery of a one star review (though she felt a bit better when I showed some of the fine specimens I have come by). Readers of this blog might remember that the main criticism was that her book was ‘Boring!!!’

The second front was opened over the issue of the characters, who according to this reviewer, were both unsympathetic and unbelievable, in fact, so like a lot of walking cardboard cut outs, that it was impossible for the reader to care what became of the lot of ‘em.

While the image of a lot of cardboard cut out characters stalking through the pages of a story is intriguing material for a fantasy story – I must give one on those lines a go, sometime – those concluding side swipes obviously cut my notice writer colleague to the quick.

This is clearly the last thing that a writer – who has probably spent hours making notes on background details on the past life of those characters, to fill them out in her/his mind – wants to hear. Well, everyone’s idea of a sympathetic or believable character is different – some people even find Heathcliff sympathetic and believable (well, so do I, having the psychiatric treatment he so clearly needs)  but it did make me mull over how far it is necessary to like the characters in a story, in order to enjoy it.

Obviously, and unfortunately, if a reader both thinks the plot is dull and the characters  uninteresting, then there isn’t very much to hold the attention. Yet, as I said last week, and as I pointed out to the writer in question (just call me Polyanna) that as the reviewer  also maintained that she kept reading to the bitter end, something obviously did hold her attention, even if it was how much she hated the characters and the plot, so all was not lost. As I said in my first post, if someone keeps on reading, however much s/he hates what you’ve written, then I count that as a victory.

How much sympathetic characters matter depends a lot, obviously,  on genre. If you are writing some traditional type murder story where you are going to bump off a lot of the characters, then it’s probably best for the reader’s peace of mind if s/he doesn’t get too fond of them. Perhaps that is why most of the characters in traditional, ‘country house murder’ Agatha Christie type detective stories are like a lot of walking stereotypes, often deliberately made hateful.

If, as Colonel Blimp is holding forth about Young People Today and Hanging and Flogging from the depths of his armchair in his club, his face a fine shade of puce, and  all his captive audience suddenly see him snatch at this throat and gargle, dropping his glass of vintage port, nobody is going to feel much outrage.

All the interest lies in the intellectual puzzle: was it his Estranged Wife who poisoned the port? Was it his nephew, the Dastardly Young Heir (entailed property, you see), who is rumoured to have Anarchistic Tendencies? Or was it the Colonel’s daughter, who has been kept at home in dowdy clothes and quietly besotted by her cousin these ten years?  Or was it the Waitress, whose mother he Ruined thirty years ago? I just wrote that off the top of my head, and no prizes for guessing that of course it was the last.

On mystery and detective stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, notoriously well written. But the secondary characters are necessarily, just a series of ciphers. There isn’t space for anything more  in a short story, even if the Victorian short story was generally far longer than one for a magazine today. There is the Spirited Governess, the Unimaginative Shopkeeper, the Dastardly Stepfather, the Haughty Unbending Aristocrat, and one of the nicest characters – the Gallant, Dashing Gentleman Sailor –in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, my favourite.  I do like a love story as part of an adventure or mystery story – but I am wandering from the point.

Conan Doyle sometimes called Sherlock Holmes ‘a reasoning machine’. This is not doing justice to the subtlety of his creation. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ when Watson and Holmes first start sharing rooms, Watson does create a list of the areas of Holmes’ supposed areas of knowledge and others where he supposedly shows a startling lack of it. For instance,  he claims not to know that the earth revolves round the sun, which I think we may assume was a joke at the expense of the sometimes credulous Watson. Later on, Conan Doyle ignored – or possibly, even forgot about – this list, much as he forgot about the location of Watson’s wound by the time of, ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Thus, while Holmes’ knowledge of literature is supposedly nil, he sometimes makes remarks on quite abstruse literary figures, for instance, his cynical (and  unfortunately, true, at least for women as sex roles stand) quote at the end of  ‘A Case of Identity’: ‘“There is danger for him who taketh a tiger cub, and danger also in whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.’

Then again, nobody seems to expect the characters in macho war stories to be anything but stereotypes. If they developed scruples about killing the enemy  or something stupid like that, it would spoil everything for the readership, so none of that.

Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Then again, as another writer friend of mine pointed out, in ‘Dracula’ (I think that was Mari Biella) while Count Dracula and his adversary Van Helsing are strongly drawn characters, the supporting cast comprising Mina and Jonathan Harker and her ex-pupil Lucy and her three admirers are very thinly drawn. However,  this doesn’t detract from the readers enjoyment of the story. The two main opponents have so much personality that there is no need for the others to need more than a few strokes of the pen.

That modern readers we require sophisticated and consistent characterisation from authors at all, shows how far our study, or perhaps, our introversion regarding human character has progressed since, say, the Bronze Age ‘Iliad’ or even the Mediaeval Arthurian Legends, when the characters often behave wholly inconsistently.

I suppose, though, it must be conceded that while most of the characters in these lasting stories (as distinct from the indistinguishable war hero types) are ciphers, they are carried by the strongly drawn main ones much like an outstanding actor supporting a while cast of mediocrities.

It is also certainly true that there are genres where characterisation is all important. This is true of most so-called ‘women’s fiction’ and is certainly true of psychological thrillers  and has to be true of love stories.

Even with love stories, though (I’m distinguishing these from ‘romance’ which is a separate genre, with set expectations of an inevitable Happy Ever After Etc from the reader) it is still possible to enjoy the story, if you find just one of the main pair appealing. That is rather similar to how it is when a friend sets her heart on someone who you think is as dismal a choice as she could make. You still want her to win through, even if you know disillusionment lurks round the corner.

I would appear to be one of the few readers of Jane Austen who doesn’t like, or admire, Mr Darcy. In fact, I thought he was a priggish so-and-so, and I delighted in Jo Baker’s less than flattering picture of him in her brilliant novel ‘Longbourn . ’ I never could imagine how Elizabeth Bennett could be happy with a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh, and I still can’t.

However, I did like Elizabeth Bennett. So if she had the poor taste to want the boring fellow (and no, no, I’m honestly not saying anything about the  Freudian implications of her joke about the sight of the grounds of Pemberley swaying her choice) , I wanted her to be able to win him, so I stayed interested until the end.

I mentioned dashing sailors earlier, and on this, and good or bad love choices, and on how it is still possible to fnd a book fascinating while not liking any of the main characters, I can think of at least one classic novel which has long intrigued me where I didn’t particularly like any of the main characters. In one, I actively disliked the two rival flawed heroes and wasn’t especially fond of the heroine. Yes, it’s – wait for it  – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, about which I have often written before.

But this post is getting too long.  So more of that next time.












Getting Those Dreaded One Star Reviews: What They May or May Not Mean.

“I don’t deserve this!”

A writing colleague of mine was really upset by getting her first one star review. This had gone up on both Amazon and Goodreads. It seems that the purchaser had been so eager to spread the bad news about this appalling book that she had even gone to the trouble of opening an account at Goodreads to post it as her first book read.

Well, I didn’t say, as many hardened writers say, ‘Join the club; any Indie Author has to learn to shrug off destructive reviews.’  

That may be true, but it seemed a bit insensitive.

You do your best to give your readers the most gripping read that  you can, and then someone dismisses it as worthless rubbish, urging everyone not to waste their money.

Hmm. They are undeniably painful, getting those one star reviews, and unless you want to look unprofessional, there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about them. The only time I respond is when someone complains of errors, textual or historical. Then, being a bit of a prig about grammar and research, I politely ask the reviewer to point them out to me so I can rectify them if necessary.

Amazon and Goodreads readers of your book can say anything that they like – however untrue – about your writing in an effort to discourage anyone from making the same mistake that they did, and buying your book. That nothing happens for 98 per cent of it, say; or that these are the dullest, least sympathetic characters that s/he has ever had the misfortune  to encounter.  

That’s the downside of the technology that makes self publishing possible.

Generally, though, there is one comfort. Most one star reviews tend to be of the ‘couldn’t get into it don’t waste your money’ variety. I find it hard to believe that any discerning reader is gong to take those seriously.

And do most self published authors want undiscerning readers? Well, maybe we do, just a bit; the ones who are undiscerning in our favour…

My colleague’s reviewer insisted furiously that the book was ‘BORING!!!!!!! BORING!!!!!! BORING!!!!!!’

Well,  I have found large sections of many classics frankly boring, ‘Wuthering Heights’ ‘Vanity Fair’ ‘Tom Jones’ and much of Dickens to name just a few, so my writer friend is in good company in boring readers. 

Regarding this particular review, though, I pointed out to my colleague that there was a discrepancy between the indignant tone and the reader’s furious insistence that s/he found the characters dull and the action wholly uninteresting.

If I’m really bored by a book, I start to lose concentration. My mind wanders to that meeting with my older relative next Sunday, where she’ll tell me once more about her coming knee operation. In my excitement over this, I forget the name of the lead characters in the book, or what s/he was doing in the last chapter which led to what is happening now.


Oh yes:  I was reading… 

He flashed his brilliant white teeth in a menacing smile.

A young girl like you certainly shouldn’t be out alone in a place like this.’

Suddenly, Ludmilla realised that he was one of the gang of young Wolfmen who were terrorizing the city. In fact, he was none other than their leader. How could she not have realized this, the minute he began to follow her home?’

That’s just what I was about to ask myself. Self Defence Step One! ‘If someone starts following you, get ready for trouble.’ 

Still, to continue:

Do you care for a bowl of Doggie Munchies?’ Ludmilla asked kindly… Then she noticed again the slight limp, no doubt the result of that fight with the rival gang. “Maybe you would prefer a knee operation?’

Me: ‘Oh no, that was my imagination taking over. Ludmilla doesn’t make any such helpful suggestions. I just dozed off again. This book is a perfect cure for insomnia. I must read it every night. Probably most readers as bored as this would rate it with two stars, but I’ll give it two and a half stars, rounded up to three, if I can ever get to the end, that is…’

Being a writer myself, I am probably much more scrupulous about handing out low star ratings than many readers. As I have often said, I have to come across something like a story that suggests that wife beating is OK, or one that romanticizes rape to give a one star rating.

Still, I do think my nonsense above is probably more typical of how you react to a book that bores you than ranting. Far from becoming angry; you can hardly concentrate. You feel far too torpid to rush to write a review using capital letters and exclamation marks, let alone troubling to open a new account with a website to repeat what you’ve said.

I suspect that that particular reviewer and others who write that a book is BORING!!!!!!!, are in fact, more outraged than bored by it.

 Whatever it is that has disturbed them – it might be sexual content, a piece of religious heresy, or any other contentious matter – a comic fat character, perhaps – they prefer to insist that they were ‘bored’ rather than angry. After all, it sounds a lot more sophisticated – even a trifle Byronic – and it might put off more readers.  Also, that way, the reader avoids admitting that this book really had an impact on her or him.

Besides, as I pointed out to the writer, as that reader admitted she had to keep on skim reading to the end, that’s really good.  I personally regard anyone reading to the end of mine as a victory, even if they hate every word. If someone has to find out what happens, even if s/he detests the characters and the plot, then the author’s won her/him over into that fantasy world and got a grip on the imagination, and that’s just what any fiction writer wants.

Finally, until next time, here’ s an image of something to do with stars that brings everything into perspective….


The Milky Way…

Next Post: Scathing Reviews Part Two: Those Unsympathetic Characters.

Where Worlds Meet Out on Amazon

Sophie looks alarmed; and with good reason; Emile has just led her into his own world outside time – and he doesn’t seem quite himself…

At last, ‘Where Worlds Meet’ is out on Amazon.com


And on Amazon.co.uk on


the prequel, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ is here free  on Amazon  and on Smashwords here

You can also get ‘Ravensdale’, which also belongs to the same series, free on Smashwords here   and if you care to point out to Amazon that they should price match, they may make that free too:

On this cover, Sophie does look alarmed, in contrast to Émile’s swaggering and savage demeanour, and she has good reason, as he has just introduced her to his own sphere outside time, and doesn’t seem quite himself…

I did love writing this.

Well, I always love most of the writing part, but I particularly enjoyed  drawing back from the dead the half undead Kenrick and Arthur and describing the grotesque absurdities of his monster men. Also, I loved  writing about Émile Dubois and his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale working together as a team, and Reynaud’s Amazonian true love, his ex-comrade-in-arms Isabella,  as a foil to the spiritual Sophie.

When writing ‘Ravensdale’, about the adventures of Reynaud and his meeting with Isabella as a highwayman (that career seems a popular one in that family)  I was tempted to bring in Émile for them to live as outlaws together, but complications to do with Émile’s needing to be over in France at that time made it impossible.

One of the things I really enjoyed about writing this latest, was that one of the main driving points of the plot is a love affair between two characters from the servant class – Kenrick’s man Arthur, and the sultry Éloise, maid to Sophie (and once her rival for Émile’s attentions). In contradistinction to the traditions of so much historical gothic, it was interesting making the actions of a servant have strong consequences for good or evil.

There is a wicked siren in this – would it be  spoof Gothic without – the late Ceridwen Kenrick’s  own cousin (cousin’s abound in this), whose humanity has been compromised by both Ceridwen and Kenrick. She has her secret reasons for joining in Kenrick’s schemes; for Kenrick has still failed to find reunion with his beloved first wife, and as before, will stop at nothing to achieve his aims.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the practical but Tarot consulting Agnes – one of my favourite characters – back at their now home at Dubois Court in Buckinghamshire for this. I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with competing assertive characters, and for that same reason, I had to give only a walk-on role to Mr Kit in this, and to keep Mrs Kit and Émile and Sophie’s adopted waif  Katarina offstage.

I suppose I am fairly typical in being very fond of my own characters, even such specimens as Kenrick.

What made me reflect on this was reading an excellent Indie novella, ‘The Carrot Man’ by Theo A Gerken which is unusual in having as its theme a sordid, petty struggle between two wholly inadmirable characters that has no serious consequences for anyone.

That is, of course, just about the opposite for the blurb for most books.

Perhaps that was what the author had in mind.  Certainly,  it works brilliantly: here  is the link to my review:


The author thought I was a bit too hard on the protagonist, and I could have been more charitable about him  (I expect he was fond of him in the same way that I am fond of Kenrick).

Anyway, it makes a great read. Like all of the darkest comedy, it’s somehow cathartic.

It can be very hard to carry out that excellent bit of advice by James N Frey and to ‘follow through’ and deliver that bloody end, that unhappy ending, when it comes to writing an unhappy fate of a character to whom you have become attached (in a good way,  I mean, not as in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’).

And that brings me to another book I relished recently, Mari Biella’s ‘Pietra and Other Horrors’.  This series of dark tales, like ‘Lord of the Flies’ is an exploration of the uneasy coexistence of the savage and amoral and the civilized, both in the external environment, and in the human heart and psyche.

Besides her elegance of style and vivid writing, I have always admired the way that this author never draws back from wreaking havoc to the lives of her characters when the plot requires it.  This is never easy to do.

The author brings a new approach to a series of classical themes of terror, the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, the sea folk, and the traditional and malevolent spectre.

Here’s my review:


Reverting to Arthur Conan Doyle, whom I mentioned in my last post, he seemingly could do it quite happily. He admitted to being utterly callous about the supposed death of Sherlock Holmes in  1893 in that fight to the death with Professor Moriarty by the Reichenbach Falls. Still, perhaps he resented his character for taking up so much of his time and attention.  He had to be offered – for those times – great sums of money to back his creation and write more Holmes’ stories.

He was equally callous about poor Watson’s wife, the Mary Morstan whom he meets in ‘The Sign of the Four’. As he wished to have Watson share the rooms at Baker Street with Holmes again, Mary Morstan had to be killed off with a pen stroke.

It must have been convenient for him to be so oblivious to his characters happiness. While I do not, like Dickens or George Eliot, shed tears over my characters’ fates if they are sad, they do give me a pang.








Planning the Structure of Your Novel and Writers’ New Year Resolutions


A Happy New Year to all the readers of this blog.

I hope that this year you all get your heart’s desire, whatever that may be, as it’s unlikely to be:

A. Taking Over the World

B. Banning tea drinking


C. Making the wearing of black socks, white trainers and check trousers obligatory.

This year began on a good note for me regarding writing.

…Well, not exactly as regards the formatting and the cover of my sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and ‘Ravensdale’.  I had even  hoped that they would be ready early enough for me to have it out before Christmas, but that was being optimistic.

…Still, I did get a message praising the writing style and structure of my spoof historical romance ‘Ravensdale’ yesterday.

Hopefully, I don’t make a point of repeating compliments.  The reason I mention this one is that readers probably don’t realise how much writers treasure those messages.

And that made me think – how often do I compliment writers whose work I admire myself? With my writer friends whose work I Beta read, who by definition are writers whom I admire, naturally I do as I read through – but the others?

One tends to think that they would be indifferent if they are fairly well known – but is this the case? Perhaps it is only true of those who can rely on a best seller every time they write a book.

Well, of course, a lot of the writers whose work I do read being classic writers, tend to be dead.

That does rather limit the possibilities of communication.

It is true that Arthur Conan Doyle , whose Sherlock Holmes stories I am fairly unoriginal in loving, was interested in spiritualist communication. In fact, he wrote a novella based on it, part of the Professor Challanger series, ‘The Land of Mists’ (1926).

If I could contact Conan Doyle, I doubt he would wish to hear from anyone about Sherlock Holmes, which he regarded as ‘inferior work’ compared to his ‘serious’ historical novels such as  ‘The White Company’  Unfortunately for how he wished to be remembered, few people read this serious work today compared to those millions who read Sherlock Holmes.

I tend to think that if he heard, from the beyond, that Sherlock Holmes is as popular as ever –  1,090 in the Kindle Store on Amazon.co.uk alone today –  he would be dismayed at what he considred to be the public’s inexplicable fascination with his creation.

…And that, of course, is leaving aside international sales of  Sherlock Holmes books, the fllms, and televison series; the board and other games, the takings of the Sherlock Holmes museum in Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes tours in London…


I don’t suppose, eiher, wherever they may be now, that Pushkin, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Bronte and the others care very much either about the fate the writing that they once did in this sphere or the opinion of one reader . I suspect that they must have gone on to greater things. That is one of the reasons why I never feel guilty about saying the harshest things about the writing of any dead author. Living ones are a different matter. It would take a novel that romantises rape, for instance, for me to leave a one star review for any living author.

On writing and New Year’s Resolutions here’ s mine. I have made it several times before, in fact, every time I am halfway through a novel. I suspect it may be one made by many writers.

I must write a plan of my next novel, instead of knowing the beginning and the end, with a few scenes along the way which must be included, but having no idea at all how to get to that ending.

There are excellent plans available online which obviously, can be really useful: here’s one

I have to admit I have never writen one of those plans yet – in fact, it looks harder work than writing the novel. I just write ‘off the top of my head’, which can be nerve wracking, but feels easier for a frequently disorganized person (and that’s another New Year’s resolution I should make).

I can see the massive advantages to having a plan – for instance, it helps solve writer’s block problems, provides balance, and ensures that you don’t leave out anything essential. You also keep in mind what you are aiming for in the novel and how best to effect that.

I don’t know how many writers feel this way and whether it is best to stick to the approach that comes most naturally to one’s temperment. Oddly enough, I have never asked one writer friend whether or not they write a plan of their stories.

That is one of the reasons why I was so pleased to be congratulated on the structure of ‘Ravensdale’, written, like the others, off the top of my head.

Lauryn April’s Excellent Article on ‘Bad Boys’ and Unhealthy Relationships in YA Fiction.

Lauryn April wrote such a brilliant article on how far an anti hero can ‘turn it around’ when he meets his true love that I just had to re-blog it here. Besides, her view of this matter is so like mine (well, naturally; how could anyone disagree with my views about anything?) that I agreed with virtually every word (surely I didn’t hear any reader mutter ‘Not like you, that’? ).

So over to you, Lauryn…

Today I want to look at the trope that the evil, yet handsome bad-boy can turn it all around when he meets the love of his life. Characters that argue and build sexual tension between them are interesting to read about, but often in an attempt to achieve this angst writers create a bad-boy character that pushes the romance in their book into unhealthy relationship territory. In response, many writers and bloggers have been posting about how unhealthy relationships in books aren’t okay. Which is great! But, I think sometimes the message gets oversimplified, leading some to think that all bad-boys are just bad.

The reality is that real relationships are complicated and that even the best relationships have hard times. Any married person or anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship will tell you that there’s been moments, fights, events in their relationship where they said something they didn’t mean, or did something they regret. Real relationships are messy at times. Sometimes people that love each other are mean to each other. But, there is a difference between complicated and messy and unhealthy.

There’s a big push for authors to stop writing bad-boys and unhealthy relationships altogether in fiction. I disagree. I think authors need to start writing bad-boys and unhealthy relationships realistically and stop romanticizing them. For example, maybe the main character falls into an unhealthy relationship and finds the strength to get out of it. Or, maybe the main character works to inspire another character to be a better person without dating them. Or, maybe that bad-boy, tortured anti-hero, decides to be a better person and realistically puts in the work to change, being affected by realistic consequences for his bad behavior.

So, if you want to write a bad-boy, how do you make his redemption arc believable and stay away from that toxic relationship scenario?

1. The bad-boy’s redemption should take time, and be about more than just getting the girl. If your character instantly decides to be good when he meets your lead, this is unrealistic. Don’t teach your readers that “you can change him.” Your bad-boy can be inspired to change by your lead character, but she shouldn’t become his conscious. If your main character is your bad-boy’s only reason for being good and she’ll do anything to save him you’re throwing them into a co-dependent relationship. Super-unhealthy. He’s got to make changes because he truly understands why he should change and wants to do it for himself.

2. Your female lead should not be getting involved with your bad-boy or staying in a relationship with him if he’s being abusive. If your YA bad-boy calls out your lead at school, completely embarrassing her, she should not be hooking up with him in the next chapter — not even if he lamely says sorry. She should probably be really mad. If your vampire bad-boy murders a bunch of innocent people, your lead should not be hooking up with him in the next chapter. She should probably be utterly terrified, really angry, or both. In other words, if your bad-boy does something bad, there should be realistic consequences, which do NOT include getting the girl. And a truly strong female lead should acknowledge that her bad-boy might be bad for her. That’s the thing about a bad-boy redemption arc that I think many writers miss. If the bad-boy needs redeeming then as he is, he’s not good enough for their female lead, but said lead is often written to act as if he is.

3. Stay away from sexual assault and rape if you want your bad-boy to be redeemable. A bad-boy being sexist, rude, crude, a total jerk, or doing something to make your lead feel uncomfortable could possibly be redeemable if you include appropriate consequences and show your character understanding why what he did was wrong and learning to be a better person. BUT, rape is not something your main character should forgive. Rape is all about control and unless you truly understand the psychology of it, and include appropriate consequences such as going to jail and therapy, I’d avoid it. I have a BA in Psychology and work with both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and I don’t feel like I could realistically write a redemption arc for a rapist — at least not in the context of a romance novel. That said, I do hope authors continue to write about tough issues like sexual assault and rape — just not in a way that romanticizes them.

Books/TV that did it wrong:

Bella and Edward in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: This series breaks rules #1 and #2. Bella and Edward and completely co-dependent, and Bella swoons over Edward regardless of how he acts.

Patch and Nora in Hush, Hush: Breaks all the rules, especially rule #3. From what I understand (I’ll admit I haven’t read this) there’s way too much sexual assault happening in this book.

Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl: This relationship started out really interesting, but when the writers broke rule #3 with Chuck’s character, I felt this was unforgivable.

I could probably continue on with this list for miles. It’d probably consist of mostly YA PNR books. But, let’s move on. Feel free to comment on other books that break the rules in the comments below.

Books/TV that did it right:

Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Willow and Tara’s relationship starts out really healthy, but as Willow’s addiction to magic grows she becomes abusive to Tara, using magic to erase Tara’s memories of fights they’ve had. I love this example for a few reasons. One, bad-boys aren’t always boys. Girls can be bad-boys. And while Willow’s character certainly didn’t start out very bad, she’s pretty badass by the beginning of season 6. Also, girls can be abusive in relationships too. Two, Willow’s abuse of Tara is mental and emotional. Abuse isn’t always physical. Three, Willow convinced herself that what she was doing wasn’t so bad. She just wanted her and Tara to be happy and not to fight. And finally, when Tara realized that Willow had again removed her memories, Tara LEFT HER! Tara still loved Willow, but she realized that what Willow had done was wrong, abusive and that Willow wasn’t going to change if Tara stayed. This was an incredibly sad story arch for these two characters, but this unhealthy relationship was necessary for the writers to explore other things with Willow’s character, like addiction. It was an unhealthy relationship done right, and if Willow had been able to get the help she needed for her addiction, I think these characters could have found their way back to one another in a healthy way.

Katy and Daemon in Obsidian – There are some parallels to be made with this book and Twilight. They both have quiet, new-to-town, female leads and mysterious, gorgeous male love interests who turn out to be supernatural creatures. And, they both involve said love interests being not so nice to the lead characters in the beginning of the books. However. Obsidian portrays a much healthier relationship between Katy and Daemon than Bella and Edward in a number of ways. One, when Daemon is mean to Katy, Katy does not turn around and swoon over him. She basically writes him off and only ends up giving him another chance when his behavior starts to change and Katy promises her best friend (Daemon’s sister) that she’d try to be nice to him. Their relationship is really brought together by Daemon’s sister. Unlike Twilight where the characters just sort of swoon over one another for no real reason. Two, Daemon is definitely a jerk and does push Katy away creating that tension that bad-boy book lovers love, but when it matters he proves himself as one of the good guys. Daemon is the guy that steps in when Katy’s homecoming date doesn’t accept “no” as an answer, instead of being the guy to push her to say “yes” like in a lot of YA PNR books. And, at the end of the book, despite having feelings for Daemon, Katy walks away from him because she doesn’t think he’ll be good for her.

“No. Sorry. You have spent months being the biggest jerk to me. You don’t get to decide to like me one day and think I will forget all of that. I want someone to care for me like my dad cared for my mom.” (p.357)

This is just the beginning of Daemon’s redemption arc and part of the reason it’s done right is that Daemon gets held accountable for his actions and doesn’t straight up get the girl by being a jerk.

Juliette and Warren in Ignite Me – I think part of what makes this a great example is that Juliette and Warren don’t get together until the THIRD book. I hated Warren in the first two books. He had to do a lot to win me over as a reader and in turn to win Juliette. One, I think what works for this book is that a lot of the reasons why you think Warren is the bad guy are misleads. The reader learns a lot about who he is by the third book and you realize that he’s not exactly who he first appeared to be. Juliette doesn’t like him, at all, until she sees his redeeming qualities. Two, I like that this book addressed that Juliette’s relationship with Adam wasn’t super healthy and showed her getting out of that. Adam appears to be good for her in the beginning, but as Juliette grows as a person she realizes that he’s not exactly what she needs.

Who are your favorite book bad-boys?

If you liked this post, you may also like:
Unhealthy Relationships: A Twilight, Graceling Comparison
Review for Obsidian by Jennifer Armentrout
Review for Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi