A comedy detective fantasy; CSI in the land of Widergard, where fantasy has grown up a bit and Nicely Strongoak is just your average Master-detective-for-hire, if your detective happens to be a dwarf with a handy hand axe. In a city filled with drug-taking gnomes, goblins packing heat and a serious case of missing-persons, Strongoak might just be what’s needed, because this is one dwarf that is never going to leave a single cobblestone unturned.
Being asked to appear at a Literary Festival, especially a local one, is always a great honour. At the behest of my inspired interviewer Isabel Lloyd I delivered a ‘Magnificent 7’ of the fictional characters I love who have also inspired my writing. Here are some more words about these fabulous characters, who have meant so much to me.
There has to be some Tolkien of course. If it wasn’t for Tolkien I would never have wondered what did happen in Middle Earth when everything moved on a few thousand years, and they had an industrial revolution, and race relations and such like became important, and they even needed a dwarf detective in the first place.
But why Samwise, after all isn’t Frodo the main character of LOTR? Or maybe Aragorn, the proper heroic type? No, actually it’s Sam who is the protagonist of the book, because a protagonist is defined by change. Frodo and Aragorn are certainly heroes – but they don’t really change. Sam, bless him, goes off on his adventuring dreaming of the heroes of old, and to his amazement becomes one of those heroes.
He is the everyman and we need everymen and everywomen:
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
Raymond Chandler introduced the mostly science fiction and fantasy reading me to a whole new world, that of crime. Some say Dashiell Hammett did crime better, but Chandler did it with more class. The world-weary knight in tarnished armour, treading those ‘mean streets’ was the main inspiration for my own dwarf detective Nicely Strongoak walking his ‘mean cobbled street’. Chandler also taught me that books weren’t just about storytelling – my main passion until then – but about the language to. And what language!
‘She had the kind of figure that would make a Bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window’.
I also loved the things I didn’t even recognise: ‘Chesterfields’ and ‘Davenports’ and the ephemera of a bygone age – which it was by then for me.
And if the past is a foreign country – why not make a few things up and put them in your books too! I know I did.
Douglas Adams – who I singularly failed to meet one day in the 1980s, but I got a nice pen from Apple – was a hero. His radio series of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe’ was a huge inspiration and was responsible for the first version of Nicely being written for audio. Bit of a mistake that, looking back, as it took me twenty five years to get it into novel form as the Radio 4 producer suggested to me. Arthur Dent appeals to that part of all of us that never feels like it is completely in control of events. Even detectives are never completely in control, which is why they get hit a lot.
‘This must be Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays.’
And so we come to Terry Pratchett’s DEATH. This is not Terry Pratchett’s personal death – which sadly came far too early, but his character DEATH. Finding a favourite character from Terry Pratchett was actually quite difficult. He’s not really about the characters for me, although there are many great ones, like Rincewind, Nanny Ogg and The Luggage, but he’s more about attitude – a way of looking at things. I was pretty upset when Mr Pratchett made it into print before I did – by the odd twenty five years or so – because he did so well what I originally set out to do. He deconstructed fantasy ideas and used them to address many of the foibles of – well, ‘life the universe and everything’. Thanks to Mr Pratchett I had to tighten my focus and make sure that my books became proper crime books too. There had always been a murder or two and a mystery, but now that was really something to be solved. Nicely grew up a bit and became more of his own dwarf. DEATH stands out, because he TALKS IN CAPITALS and because he is really quite a decent chap. You wouldn’t mind having a drink with DEATH, as long as his bitter didn’t go everywhere.
Two death quotes:
“And what would humans be without love?”
“RARE, said Death.”
and given the subject matter, this one:
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
Howard the Duck
Iron Man is really so much scrap, Superman couldn’t have a sex life, Batman can’t talk properly, which makes Howard the Duck the greatest comic book ever, and one of the great film turkeys too. Certainly the worse crime against cinema committed by George Lucas.
Howard the Duck is a cynical, tough-talking, cigar champing duck, who ends up in a world of hairless apes. It wasn’t just the fish out of water aspect that appealed to me, but also that he was able to satirise and basically ‘take the piss’ out of all the Marvel comic book heroes, as well as other cultural norms, while still going along with their fun and games. An attitude I approve of and exploited in my 2005 play: ‘What do you do on the Night after you’ve Saved the Universe?’ This was a play that basically featured super-heroes sitting round and eating pizza. Had great fun with ‘C Thru Girl’ and ‘Minuscule Man’.
The great affection felt for Howard in the comic book community can be seen by the fact that he has a cameo in both ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ films.
“Hey, if I had some place to go I certainly wouldn’t be in Cleveland” – insert your least loved location.
A detective and a wizard – isn’t that a little close to comfort, Terry?
No actually – Jim Bishop’s modern day Chicago based PI shows how much fun you can have with the tropes and ideas of fantasy in a modern setting – yet be very different. This was a great relief to me when I was trying to get ‘Nicely’ published. A very different cauldron of spells.
For a start, being a wizard, Jim actually uses magic. Nicely Strongoak isn’t too sure about magic. He prefers his racing green, ’57 Dragonette convertible steam wagon, the model with the air trims and the longer foils, and a shooter instead of a staff. Nicely wears good hats. Harry doesn’t wear a hat – whatever the covers may show!
The late Philip Kerr’s WWII German detective Bernie Gunther is one of the great creations. He narrowly beat another German, Gunther Grass’s ‘Oskar Matzerath’ to my list. Like Oskar, Bernie Gunther holds up a powerful light to shine on the atrocities of WWII and the circumstances that make an essentially decent policeman do what he has to, and makes us wonder what we might do in similar circumstances.
And in Berlin of the war period Kerr also provides another world with its own furniture and slang as interesting and varied as any fantasy world can be.
“When you get a cat to catch the mice in your kitchen, you can’t expect it to ignore the rats in the cellar.”
“Looking round the room I found there were so many false eyelashes flapping at me that I was beginning to feel a draught.”
Please note: I could have cheated for the sake of political correctness and included references to private investigators ‘Kinsey Malone’, and ‘VI Paretsky’ – who I love – or female action heroes like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor – but they are mostly film and this was for a literary festival after all. And I haven’t mentioned ‘intertextuality’ at all! At the end of the day it’s all about what influenced my writing the most and these are the main people, outside of Roxy Music, David Bowie, August Darnell and Bugs Bunny.
That’s all folks!
* With thanks to Jane Triton and The Robertsbridge Arts Partnership and, of course, my intrepid interviewer, the writer and journalist, Isabel Lloyd.
Ten Reasons why I Love Books … and one extra
1) Easy travel without buying a ticket
2) Legal voyeurism
3) You can fall in love but behave outrageous and see other people too
4) A novel of the proper length enables you to support your head when lying on the floor to straighten your spine
5) Turning pages is good exercise for turning pages
6) You don’t need to share a book and you don’t get told off for it
7) You can meet such nice people
8) You don’t have to put up with the company of people you don’t like (for long)
9) Words in books help you to understand more about the world
10) I’ve never been stood up by a book
Why ‘Nicely Strongoak’? What’s that name all about? I get asked this a lot. I thought I had better sit down and explain it properly.
You have a funny relationship with your name don’t you? Well, I do anyway.
Love it or loathe it, you’re stuck with your name. Unless you do what a few people I’ve known have done and actually change it. (Hi Paige!) But frankly, I find that a bit weird. (Sorry Paige). I’m talking about first names of course, I mean doesn’t everybody change their surname at some point? (I’ve had three).
Your first name, the label that you grew up with. The name with which you were praised or admonished and which, hopefully, one day was whispered lovingly into your ear. The name that was shouted across parks at sunset to bring you home – or is that the dog?
The name that helps define you, whether you love it or loathe.
I hate my name. Terry that is. I know it’s Terence on the birth certificate but nobody ever called me that. It was always Terry.
Terry is the name of somebody who works on a fruit and veg stall at the local market. Terrys got to play second division football but rarely made it to the top of their profession. Terrys were your mates that played darts down the Red Lion on a Wednesday evening. Terrys were the bodyguards but never the one being guarded.
Terry was shorthand for a cockney likely lad. Terry was a name picked by lazy scriptwriters when they when didn’t want to develop a character.
OK – I did work on a fruit and veg stall and I did play darts down the Red Lion – but I couldn’t guard a kindergarten. I wasn’t that sort of Terry. I was surely a Karl, a Maxwell or maybe even a Sebastian!
I wore silver Lurex lady’s evening gloves, silk bomber jackets and over-the knee black suede platform stiletto boots for heaven’s sake! (It was that time).
Terrys didn’t do any of that! But of course they did. It wasn’t all about Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Enos – it was mostly Terrys doing the lurex glove wearing.
I was interesting! Terrys weren’t interesting!
So, eventually, I became Dr Tel. Well, Tel is an acceptable contraction of Terence and I was called Tel a lot as a child. I was even called Telstar for a while – how I wish that had stuck!
And, by now, I was a doctor and so Dr Tel seemed acceptable and anyway my best mate used it first. So that counts, as far as nickname creation goes.
And Dr Tel I did become and thus was I called, by students and comedy chums too. Dr Tel was interesting and he was fun, and even occasionally a little dark. He didn’t wear Lurex gloves anymore but there were a lot of dark suits and very narrow ties. Yes, Dr Tel was everything I had always aspired to be. Dr Tel was, indeed, the real me. But, you know what? Terry still hung around.
Terry who played darts and once worked on a fruit and veg stall, bless his cheery heart, was still there in the background ready to put on his slippers of an evening and talk bollocks down the local later.
And, guess what happened? I was suddenly rather glad to see him. He wasn’t too bad a bloke. After all, if as Gary Oldman said about his mate Bowie: ‘He’s Dave from Brixton and I’m Gary from New Cross’, why couldn’t I be Terry from Stevenage?
After all, if it hadn’t of been for Terry we wouldn’t have had these three marvellous songs:
For everybody who might be feeling a little jaded at this time of year, I give you a Cynical UK ’80s Xmas (no resemblance to anybody living or dead of course).
In the days before streaming, MP3s and such like – when proper music came in vinyl that they called ‘long players’, there was something called ‘Difficult Second Album Syndrome’.
An album was another name for a LP (long player), being a number of audio recordings issued as a collection, which after vinyl’s heyday was then also used for both tape cassettes and CD collections – gosh, it’s like a history lesson!
And the ‘difficult second album’ was what they called the follow-up LP a band or singer had to bring out pretty quickly after the initial success of their debut. Usually with the record label pushing them hard! The problem referenced the fact that recording artistes had, apparently, often used up all their best ideas on that impressive first record.
Now, novels having been around a lot longer than LPs (did any classical music composers have ‘that difficult second symphony syndrome’?) you would think more would have been written about ‘Second Novel Syndrome’. Of course it must exist, after all Margaret Mitchell never managed another book after ‘Gone with the Wind’. J D Salinger rather dried up after ‘Catcher in the Rye’. Maybe it’s more success related than the actual writing?
What then can be done to get over this problem? And did I ever suffer from ‘Difficult Second Novel Syndrome’ when writing ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’ (KELS)? This being the second adventure of the ‘#1 Kindle Bestselling’ Master Detective Nicely Strongoak. (Not exactly ‘Gone With The Wind’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’ fame I know!)
The answer is no. And not because I’d already published ‘The Resolution Show’ with David Alter in between, because chronologically that was actually written a lot later.
The explanation, and the way to get round ‘Difficult Second Novel Syndrome’, is to start the second novel before you finish the first! Well, that’s what I did with KELS.
What’s this all about then? Simply put, when writing Nicely’s first adventure ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf’ I found that there was a lot of material being generated that just didn’t fit in that first book. It was either connected to events, or characters, which just didn’t belong in ‘A Dead Elf’. They were too good to waste though and I put them elsewhere (in my fester box) and gradually KELS began to take shape there.
Bottom line, I had half of this book finished before I had completed Nicely’s first adventure. This meant I had none of that ‘blank page’ problem when it came to writing KELS for real. There were a lot of other problems of course, but not to do with the actual writing.
And, guess what?
While I was getting the rest of KELS together the elements of Book 3 of Nicely’s adventures were taking shape. Now, on ‘The King of Elfland’s Little Sister’ publication day, I am delighted to announce that the first draft of Book 3 is also complete. It’s called …
Sorry, you’ll have to wait for that treat, but in putting that book together the basis for Book 4 began to take shape as well. But that, as they say, is another story.
Here’s a book trailer for “The King of Elfland’s Little Sister”
Feel free to hum along!
To help celebrate the forthcoming publication of the inspirational ‘Putting the Science in Fiction’ (PSF) ten of the contributors are providing further contributions and story prompts based on their field of expertise. Before I became a comedy writer, playwright and scriptwriter I had another identity – I was Commander Cold and you can read about problems associated with freezing biological material, for preservation and reanimation, in the mighty tome that is ‘Putting the Science in Fiction’.
With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) coming up you might find some stimulus and (frozen) food for thought here in:
The Further Adventures of Commander Cold
Chemical fixatives – the agents used for immobilising the constituents of cells and tissues for structural studies – act too slowly to get more than an ‘averaged’ view of the biological material. Cellular events, like secretory activities, muscle contraction and nerve transmission, are far too rapid to be caught as they take place. That is why ultra-rapid freezing provides a viable alternative for the initial immobilisation of the parts of cell involved in fast processes.
Freezing, particularly using ultra-pure copper cooled by liquid helium, has been successful in capturing even very rapid events like synaptic release. However, helium is not cheap. Other cryogens, like refreezing Freon and liquid nitrogen slush (liquid/solid mix) have their place, but better and more convenient alternatives are always worth looking into.
This helps explain why I was jetting high pressure liquid nitrogen at small lump of muscle, but not why I needed the stockings and the thermal insulation against the gas that got me dubbed ‘Commander Cold’.
On a general point – a lot of this relates to how science is actually done, rather than how the layperson may think science gets done. If you are considering how a scientist might act in your story, do consider a place for improvisation and thinking outside the box .
A company that I had connections to had a good idea. They realised that liquid helium was expensive while liquid nitrogen was cheap. Liquid nitrogen is not actually a good freezing agent though because of something called the Leidenfrost effect (reference book for more information). It is concerned with the small range between liquid nitrogen’s melting and boiling points. This means that if you put something warm into liquid nitrogen you get an insulating layer of gas formed that then slows the freezing rate. One way round this, which doctors use for wart removal, is to direct a high-pressure jet of liquid nitrogen at what you want cooled and the insulating gas layer is thereby striped away and fresh liquid exposed to do the cooling. This is exactly the way you might well see somebody (or something) being frozen in a film or on TV and it usually results in them being frozen in seconds or even milliseconds. This would not be the case – it would be an incredibly inefficient and painful way to kill somebody probably involving them going blind first and stumbling around in agony. The chances of recovery would be zero.
The company’s idea was to ramp up the pressure of the liquid nitrogen considerably and direct the biological tissue requiring freezing into its path. Very small amounts of biological material it has to be emphasised! They needed somebody to evaluate how well the material was freezing. It seemed an interesting idea and it was – in theory. The problem was that the jet that did the freezing tended to spray the biological material all around the room. I tried suitably arranged thermos flasks to catch it, but the jet made finding the sample very difficult.
Of course the room filled alarmingly with nitrogen too – and so ‘Commander Cold’ was born. Incidentally this activity was no more dangerous than what would happen upon filling up a Dewar from a large liquid nitrogen storage cylinder. ‘Health and Safety’ first – just because you may not freeze quickly it doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to kill yourself with coolants, asphyxiation being a prime example.
This is where the stockings came in. A single stocking over the whole jetting apparatus turned out to be the best way of catching the sample – in the stocking toe as it happens. They were flexible and actually thawed quite quickly.
The freezing rate of the jet freezer was never really good enough though.
The idea of jetting liquid nitrogen didn’t leave me though. Thinking about the properties of liquid nitrogen I remembered that you can also produce supercritical liquid nitrogen. A supercritical fluid is any substance at a temperature and pressure above its critical point, where distinct liquid and gas phases do not exist. In effect, if you can keep maintain the pressure of the liquid nitrogen above its critical point as you jet you will not get the Leidenfrost effect and freezing rates of biological material should be excellent.
So I designed the world’s first (probably) Super Critical Liquid Nitrogen Jet Freezer. And very neat it seemed, requiring no stockings at all! I found a company interested in prototyping it for me and all seemed great, until my university’s Business Department stepped in.
They thought a Super Critical Liquid Nitrogen Jet Freezer was going to bring great wealth to all concerned and outlined the various ‘cuts’ they would expect from any profits. At which point the company pulled out. As the company boss said to me, ‘there’s probably only a demand for a dozen in the whole world Terry and at the price they are anticipating it just won’t sell.’
And so the Super Critical Liquid Nitrogen Jet Freezer never did see the light of day, but Commander Cold lived to freeze another day. And always remember, the world of the very small can be just as exciting as the world of the very small. For example: nobody knows what this is!
So have you been having chilly thoughts in your writing? Here are some ideas to get you warmed up!
Story Prompt 1: A scientist thinks outside the box (just as I tried) and discovers a totally new method that allows cryogenically frozen plants and animals to be re-animated – until it all goes wrong of course.
Story Prompt 2: A company that has made a fortune out of fraudulently freezing the dead discovers that the departed have been mysteriously disappearing.
Story Prompt 3: A deep space colony ship has passengers in deep freeze. But is everybody really as inactive as they should be?
And if you want a chance to win a copy of ‘Putting the Science in Fiction simply enter the Rafflecoptor giveaway below: