From mysteries to history: Crime Writer DAVID BURNELL explains why he’s thrown himself hook, line and sinker into the drama-filled past for his latest short story collection.
It’s hard to find an overall theme for a collection of short stories. On the first I simply pulled together various tales I’d written for my Writing Circle. That gave plenty of variety – from murder to comedy – but little strategic coherence.
On the next, One Scoop or Two?, I realised that the format gave me a chance to write “early” tales on the heroes of my full-length crime novels. It was a bit like moving key players from Test Match cricket to One Day Internationals. They had to become more adept and more dynamic. Later, when I got to battling with my next full-length novel, I was pleased that some of that urgency seemed to transfer back to the longer format.
My third, Lucky Dip, coincided with interesting holidays to visit two of my children, one working in Israel/Palestine and the other in Northern Uganda. I noted possible starting points for stories that I heard as we travelled. The result was eight new stories set in foreign parts, mixed in with more early tales of my full-length heroes. By now I had a subtitle for the whole series, Tales of Peril and Predicament. Just about all my tales could be fitted into that scheme.
With my latest book, Hook, Line and Sinker, I have a new pattern. It started with the first story. Our Writing Circle competition theme was the centenary of the end of World War One so I decided to have a look at the War Poets. Lieutenant Wilfred Owen had been killed in the last week of the Great War. I started to research his life, discovered he had worked before the war in a church on the edge of Reading. But how could I make any of this dramatic?
The most recent history I was taught stopped in 1914. I didn’t have enough background to make up any story about Owen on the Western Front. Then I thought about today’s Vicar at Owen’s old church. Surely he would recall the man at his next Remembrance Service? Could I make a story around that event?
A historian friend lent me some collected works of War Poets. Not much by Wilfred Owen, but what he’d written was very moving. Then the idea came, could I concoct a last letter sent by Owen to the vicar at the time, to be rediscovered in time for the Remembrance Service in 2018?
I imagined how Owen might have felt. He’d just been awarded the Military Cross for mass slaughter with a machine gun. Would that boost his morale or make him feel distraught? I managed to include his most famous line, “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” It became a contentious piece about the futility of war, but one that he might just have written to his old vicar.
To see how this story develops you’ll need to read “Act of Remembrance”. But the wider point was that I had hit on a mechanism that began with a real historical event and expanded it, fictitiously, into a compelling short story. Was this a mechanism that I could use more often?
I recalled the tale of the suffragette killed at the Epsom Derby in 1913. A gory tale, how could I make it impact today? Maybe if seen through different eyes: what about Agatha Christie? And if so, how might she have fine-tuned the official story?
By now I was launched. Agatha had a near-escape of her own when she disappeared in 1926. Rival writer Dorothy Sayers was asked by the Home Secretary to assist in the enquiry. What on earth would she have said? So I tried to imagine the gloss she might have put on the affair – pure fiction, of course, but a plausible blend of the facts at her disposal.
On holiday in Yorkshire I spotted a subtitle on a village sign near Scarborough: ”The birthplace of aviation”. Whatever was this? It turned out that this was where a nineteenth century inventor, Sir George Cayley had lived; and one of his inventions was a glider. It had been flown by an unknown ten-year-old boy. Perfect: there was scope to amplify the basic event. I reconfigured it from the viewpoint of the lad’s parents. But why had his identity been lost? After ages looking at the map I noticed the village was close to the railway line from Scarborough to York. So when was that built? To my joy it turned out to be 1845, just prior to this flight. That gave me a plausible reason why the flight might have been hushed up.
From a BBC aside I learned that Charles Dickens had started his career recording Parliament for Hansard. He was still employed when Parliament burned down in 1834. So I retold that event from his viewpoint. It was the Grenfell Tower of his day. Who needs a camera? JMW Turner apparently took his easel to the front of the crowd and painted the scene as it blazed away.
And so on. In the end I found a dozen expandable events, ranging from 1066 through to the last century. I supplemented these with more tales of my long-running heroes from earlier books. One is a West Indian policewoman in North Yorkshire. I took her to Whitby to celebrate Captain James Cook and ended up with a story entitled “Cook, Line and Sinker”. At that point it dawned on me that Hook, Line and Sinker was a good summary of my writing pattern, so I took it as my overall title. If you are interested or like Kindle books you can find it on Amazon.
To find out more about David and his work go to www.davidburnell.info
To buy Hook, Line and Sinker click here
There are six volumes in David’s popular Cornish Conumdrums crime series, check them out here