Featured

He’d Speared a Squid

When I saw that scene in Game of Thrones, where they throned Rob Stark, it reminded me of squid fishing in the Bay of Naples, January ninety-four. “The king in the North! The king in the North!” they clamoured, raising tankards and slurping ale while covered in bearskins and wearing swords. There were no bearskins nor swords in Napoli. Even in January, it was too warm for furs, and nine-mills were — and probably still are — the preferred weapon. I guess a longsword would have attracted police attention, even in a corrupt region like Napoli in the nineties. It’s also a little hard to hide a longsword in the waistband of a pair of chinos.

“The king in the North! The king in the North!” I remember that January night as clearly as I remember that scene.

After Christmas, when the winter sets in for real, the local fishing methods change from free diving with a snorkel, a mask and a spear gun, hunting sea bass under the hulls of anchored ships, to fishing from boats with gas lamps shining on the surface to attract the fish, and tridents used to spear them. Needless to say, balance is critical. Thrusting with a trident while standing in a rocking boat is not easy.

The fishing technique might have changed, but the quotas did not. The Guardia di Finanza — Italian Customs and Excise — limit the size of each fisherman’s catch, meaning a surplus after each sortie. Because their wives would no longer allow late-night fish binges, having lived with them for too long, fishermen were always on the lookout for somewhere to cook. Despite being aware of the tradition, I hadn’t expected a ring on the doorbell at ten o’clock on a Friday in early January. With my wife still in Ireland, visiting her family in Limerick, I’d been about to go to bed.

“Who is it?” I asked at the intercom.

“Pippo, it’s me, Andrea. We have caught some fish. Can we come up?”

Of course, I would not have rejected fresh fish for any reason and so buzzed them in. I was surprised when I went out onto the landing and heard squelching as they made their way up the two flights of stairs. When they arrived at the door, I noticed Andrea was soaked. I grinned at the brothers, Beni and Genno, nodding at the footprints the doctor was leaving on the marble stairs. Genno, the head fisherman, pushed the doctor into the apartment, laughing as he did so. 

“Why’s he so wet?” I asked as I closed the door.

“You won’t believe it, Pippo,” Genno gasped between laughs. “Il Dottore speared a squid!” 

I knew Genno’s laughter was not to do with Andrea spearing a squid. Watching the slumped shoulders as the man walked down the corridor, I wondered at the bedraggled state of a senior specialist at Antonio Cardarelli hospital. I let it slide because I knew Genno was a storyteller renowned in his own head and loved to drive suspense at his own pace.

“Pippo, can I have a shower and maybe borrow some clothes?” Andrea asked from the kitchen doorway. 

I frowned, conflicted when it came to providing Andrea with support. According to the village gossip mill, the guy was shagging my wife! Although gossip mills, especially those in rural fishing villages, were renowned for inaccuracies, I still couldn’t shake the idea there might be some truth. I looked at him. He seemed so forlorn and desperate. Would he really come here in need of help if the rumours were true? Unless, of course, it had not been his suggestion to use my place.

I turned to the others, Genno, Beni, and another man I didn’t know. They were grinning and looking guilty. The wife had delayed her return from Limerick. I looked at the monster from the lagoon and wondered if they had had a spat. Christmas breaks seemed to be getting longer, but I supposed it could just be because she needed to get away from the village. She could be avoiding the waggling tongues, and I wouldn’t blame her for it.

“Okay!” I said, “I’ll get some clothes.”

Andrea followed me to the bedroom. I gave him a towel, a t-shirt and a pair of jogging pants and joined the others in the kitchen.

“Come on then, why’s he so wet?” I asked Genno.

“Well, we keep a bottle of wine on the boat, you know, for emergencies.” Shaking my head, I wondered what type of emergencies might be counteracted with a bottle of wine. “When Il Dottore finally speared a squid — for years he’s been trying — he decided it was an emergency.”

Genno stopped and looked around to make sure his audience was listening. Each of them was grinning and nodding. “So he took the bottle of wine — he was in the bow of the boat with his back to the sea, by the way — tilted it back and back and back, until he fell off the boat with a splash!”

Everybody laughed. 

“The most amazing thing,” Genno continued between splutters, “was he didn’t spill a drop. He went into the sea with a bottle of wine and rose from the waves like Neptune, although he dropped his trident, which Neptune would never have done!”

The laughter became raucous. Each of the men in the company had their own memories of that moment. Still, they were as one when it came to the doctor’s seeming ability to rescue wine from a hopeless situation. Rather than making wine from water, he saved wine from water. 

To this day, I don’t think the fishermen were in awe of the feat but were playing with Andrea in a way only they knew how. The caste system is solid — at least it was solid — and the doctor’s continued attempts to bridge the gap annoyed those he was trying to reach. Also, to the locals, the gossip mill was never questioned. As far as they were concerned, he’d broken a cardinal by sleeping with another man’s wife. They were just waiting for me to shoot the bastard with my speargun. Maybe, if I’d been sure, I would have shot him, but I was never sure. Even now, I’m not sure. I remember her sister staring at me while I eulogised at the wife’s funeral, daring me to voice my suspicions. Instead, I extolled her on her love of food and a constant smile. I kept her memory clean. If I ever get to eulogise the doctor, maybe I won’t be so reticent.

Finally, Andrea returned from the shower and announced, “If nobody objects, I will cook. I know you guys can fish, but only I can cook!”

They looked at each other and nodded, fighting hard against a need to laugh. Let Andrea cook. They were men; cooking was for girls. If anything, in their eyes, the doctor was undoubtedly feminine.

The fish was in a plastic bag. The doctor upended the load on the draining board and started to sort through the catch, I suppose deciding how to cook them. A fish stew for those fish not big enough for individual cooking, grilling for those that were, and so on.

As Andrea divided the fish into piles, an eel decided to protest against its fate and lunged at him, grabbing hold of the flap of skin at the base of his thumb. Needle-thin teeth sank into flesh, causing a scream and futile attempts to shake it free. He continued to scream, little yelps in time with each shake, until the eel fell and started to flop around my kitchen floor, looking for an escape route. Incensed, Andrea grabbed my cast iron wok from the hob — a wok which was dear to me — and began chasing the eel around the kitchen, attempting to bash its brains out. With each swipe, the wok clanged like a tolling bell. The words, It tolls for eel, kept running around my head until I realised the danger.

“Hey, use something else,” I shouted, but the doctor was on a crusade and heard nothing. With his final smack, he killed the eel, and my prized wok gave up the ghost as its handle separated from its body with a final clang. 

“It tolls for eel,” I said as Andrea dropped the handle and grabbed the fish with an eerie look of triumph on his face. I decided to get out of the kitchen before saying something I would regret.

“Don’t ask,” I said in answer to the raised eyebrows in the dining room. 

I slumped into the chair at the head of the table and crossed my arms in frustration. Banging my wife was all rumour. Banging my wok, not so much. “Bastard killed my wok. Present from me ma, that was,” I said to the ceiling.

The fishermen just looked on. They’d no idea what I was saying because none spoke any English. Local dialect was their mother tongue; Italian a distant second, and no such thing as a third language.

“You okay, Pippo?” Genno asked.

“Been better,” I admitted.

My subdued mood persisted. If the others noticed, they said nothing. The doctor served the fish, which was good, and the wine flowed. Genno continued to dart the odd veiled jibe at the doctor, which he either ignored or missed entirely. No mention was made of his infidelity or the murder of my prized wok.

It was only after Genno raised his glass and said, “I would like to propose a toast to The King of the Sea!” that I noticed the t-shirt I’d lent to Andrea. It had an image on the chest of a ship’s anchor wrapped in rope, surrounding words, the logo of a local clothing brand called King of the Sea.

Each person around the table raised their glass and repeated the toast, “The King of the Sea! The King of the Sea!” The doctor sat there, face split from ear to ear, not laughing at himself, not laughing at Genno’s joke, but seeing it as his crowning achievement. 

He’d speared a squid.

Featured

Selling Hard Truths

I am not sure I can call them truths, not in my chosen speciality, pre-Christian Ireland. There were no written records at the time, the “truths” were passed on by the druids as a verbal tradition. They were committed to paper hundreds of years after the alleged events by monks prone to flowery exaggerations. So, at best, they are unreliable and at worst, simply untrue.

Putting that aside, the unreliable untruths I was told as a child turn out wholly different from those I have uncovered during my research. In the tales that were told to me, there was no mention of Cuchulainn’s psychopathic tendencies, the promiscuity of Medb, nor the evil of Conor Mac Nessa. I do not recall any mention of Conor’s rape of Medb, nor of Cuchulainn’s murder of the women at court after the death of Dervla. I do not recall any detail of Cuchulainn’s death, which was gruesome to put it mildly.

It seems I am not alone. One of my practice readers asked me if my stories are set in pre-Celtic Ireland. “These are not stories about the Celts, surely?” The actual question. “The Celts were musicians and poets. Jewellery makers. Not brutes.” Yes, they were all those things, but they were also brutes. They did take the heads of their battle victims. They did commit ritual sacrifices. They did consider rape and pillage as entertainment.

And my last work, Milesian Son of Light, relates those things. It does not gloss over the indelicacies of the pre-Christian tribes of Ireland.

For a free KU version: www.amazon.com/dp/B07QH1JY48

The next in line for release is the Omnibus tale of Conaire and Cuchulainn, A Prelude to War, available for pre-order at: www.amazon.com/dp/B08428DHLS

Featured

Release Schedule (revised)

Here’s the PH Publishing planned release schedule for 2020, the year of perfect vision.

A Prelude to War

A Prelude to War, The Milesians was released on February 28th. It is the tale of a king who is too weak to rule, a queen who is defiled by one from whom she sought succor and a hero who crosses boundaries to the extent he loses all control.

Available at: www.amazon.com/dp/B08428DHLS

The Hidden Syndicate

The Hidden Syndicate is due for release on April 30th. It is the complete tale of Inspector Izzo and Archie Moses all rolled into one. There are new bits and the previous three books have been heavily edited.

Milesian Daughter of War

Milesian Daughter of War is due for release August 30th. Queen Medb has tried everything to get her revenge on King Conor. All has failed, so now she has decided on war. She fabricates a grievance against one of his chieftains and invades Ulster. Only, Medb did not count on the youthful hero of Ulster and her war does not go to plan.

The Alcoholic Mercenary

The Alcoholic Mercenary is due for release on October 30th. Andrea became a merc when he was dishonorably discharged from the Col Moschin, Italy’s most elite regiment. Rescued from his alcoholism by the capo di tutti, his principles are sorely tested when his brother is brutally murdered in what he thinks is an internecine conflict.

Milesian Brother of Justice

Milesian Brother of Justice is due for release on December 25th (Christmas, Yippee). Cathasach The Vigilant used to be a druid, but when he saw the injustice of the tribal feudal system, he decided to work for the people. When Lee Fliath is made known to him by the witch Niamh, he takes up the youth’s cause, despite suspecting it would fail.

Featured

Reduced price acclaimed novel

From November 15th for a limited time, Berserker is available for download at only £ 0.99. This is the work of which David Ebsworth, renowned historical novelist said, ” It takes a great deal of courage to pick up something so well-loved as the Irish sagas of the Red Branch and the Milesian Kings and dust them off. But the author has managed to do this very well.”

Available from: https:/www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B079V6Q2FR

Featured

Milesian Son of Light – Trailer – Release Date July 3rd

Dawn

1

I see it in my mind as though it were yesterday. It seems strange, but now I can see the flapping of The Morrigan’s wings, everything that had become misty through time, I see with clarity. Although my eyes are dulled by pain, my mind is sharp as a boar spear. Yes, yes, your impatience is obvious in your fidgeting. I will tell all, but it will be in my own time. You can wait for my death but not for my story? But then you are waiting, aren’t you? You fear her too much to leave, and you fear me too much to act, I warrant.

So, to my tale.

It was late afternoon when I first met the warrior. The sun was falling slowly from the sky, approaching the eaves of the forest in the mountains where my father had chosen to hide us. It had been a normal day. Chores completed, I was hurling with Diarmuid and the others. Da was chopping wood and Ma was cooking, as she always seemed to be. Cooking or washing our clothes in the Dargle, anyway. I remember smelling the smoke of the cook fire and beginning to salivate over thoughts of fresh venison and oats, tiring of the game. I was just wondering if always winning could be as tiresome as never winning, and thought to ask Diarmuid, when he stopped and looked over my shoulder at the rise.

‘He looks like he has just fought a hard battle,’ he said with a nod.

I scoffed and shook my head. ‘You think I will fall for that, Diarmuid? I am not as thick as you think. You want the sliotar, you will have to take it by force.’

‘No, really, Seti. He has a bandage on his head and on his arm. His horse is skittish too. I swear on The Morrigan. He is a warrior.’

‘And what in the name of The Morrigan would a warrior be doing in this Gods’ forsaken dung heap? They have better things to do…’ and then a horse neighed, so I looked.

The man sitting at the top of the rise had the look of one in need of rest. The bandages were as Diarmuid had said, and blood-stained. He was one who had seen hard battles, I supposed. I had never seen a warrior before, hiding in the mountains because of the fears of my father, I had never seen anything of interest, let alone a warrior or a princess, a king or a queen. Those things, until that day, had been the stuff of my dreams and my father’s drunken stories.

‘Now, there is a warrior if ever I saw one,’ I said, with a knowledgeable nod.

‘What was I telling you. A warrior here in the Wicklow Mountains. Never thought I would see it happen. Blooded too.’

‘You think the rumours of invasion are true?’ I asked of no one. Travellers had been in the forest, running from reavers, they said. Da said they were just looking for a free meal and to ignore them. But seeing the warrior sitting at the top of the rise, I had my doubts.

My prayers that he would continue to the settlement were answered when the man kicked his horse into motion, and they started down the path. I stood my hurley between my feet and leant on it to watch him come. He seemed in no hurry the gait of his horse easy. My chest heaved with excitement. It was as though my life’s meaning was riding down the slope. I had thought I would spend my days tilling the hard ground, trying to make enough to live on, back bent by the labour, gut distended because of the mead necessary to forget the hardness of life, a wife and children on whom to beat out my frustrations.

As he neared, I could see he was no longer young. His hair was greying at the temples, below the dirty bandage. His bare forearms showed the scars of many sword strokes.

‘Are you straight from battle, warrior?’ I asked, as he reined in beside us. He frowned down. The sun was behind me, and I knew he could see little.

I was about to repeat my question when Diarmuid shouted, ‘Look Lámthapad,’ pointing at the red and black shield, where it was hanging over the horse’s rump. ‘It is the shield of the Ulster champion. Are you he, Conall Cernach, the captain of the Red Branch?’

‘Is it true? Have you just ridden from battle?’ I repeated.

‘Enough,’ the warrior’s voice carried power and we stopped, holding our collective breaths. ‘Who is chieftain of this settlement?’

‘My father,’ I said.

‘Which is your homestead, boy?’

‘It is there. The second one. You can see my father chopping wood,’ I pointed my hurley for emphasis.

The warrior said nothing more. He turned his horse in the direction of our small roundhouse and said, ‘Ride on, Dornoll.’ The horse obeyed with the same easiness she had shown walking down the slope. We abandoned our game and followed them, seeming to reach a silent agreement to go and listen. Whatever the warrior wanted it was bound to be of more interest than a tired game of hurling.

‘Well met, farmer,’ I heard the warrior say as he reined in his mount.

My father did not respond immediately but straightened his back as much as it would go and leant on his axe, one hand shielding his eyes from the setting sun.

‘And who might you be, stranger?’ he asked, in a tone that was in no way welcoming. ‘Or more to the point, what are you doing in my glen? There is nothing here for the high and the mighty.’

‘I am lost. Seeking my way to Tara.’

‘Over there, the deer track will bring you to Slíghe Chualann,’ da pointed his axe at the other side of the glen. ‘Follow it north and you will come to Tara. Good day to you.’

‘Da, da, look it is the champion of The Ulaid,’ I said, trying to delay the warrior’s parting.

‘I did not say I was the champion of anywhere, boy.’

‘If you are not Conchobar Mac Nessa’s man, why do you have Lámthapad hanging over your horse’s arse?’ da asked.

‘You seem to know a great deal for someone hiding in the Chualann forest,’ the warrior said, looking back at the shield with a frown.

‘I know enough to keep my family safe.’

‘How do you know it is Lámthapad? It might be a fake?’ Da shook his head and smiled. Even I smiled at the futile attempt of the warrior to keep his name to himself.

‘My brother is a blacksmith. I know white gold when I see it. If the shield is false, it is a very costly affectation.’ My father looked over at the darkening forest before turning back and saying, ‘The deer track is yonder. You should be on your way before night keeps you here in the glen,’ where you are not welcome, da’s eyes said, even though his mouth did not have the courage to utter the words.

I expected the warrior to drawer his sword or crush da’s head with the war hammer strapped across his back. Instead, he shook his head, sighed, crossed his wrists over the horn of his saddle and said, ‘I need a favour of you.’

‘What is it you want?’

‘What is it I want, man? As you rightly just said, night is upon us. I was looking for succour until the dawn. I have ridden long and hard with news for Tara.’

My father looked away, deep in thought. It was obvious he did not want to play host to a warrior known for his ability with all weapons, but nor did he want to offend. Like us all, da had heard of Conall Cernach. He probably thought he was standing before a man who would use the hammer resting across his back without thinking. My da surprised me then for the only time in my life. I had not thought it possible a vindictive and cowardly man would have it in him when he said, ‘You can sleep in the ox shed.’

‘The ox shed…’ the warrior started, his hand drifting towards the hilt of his sword.

‘I do not mean offence, lord,’ da interrupted, seeing the rising anger in the warrior. ‘There is not enough room for you to sleep in the roundhouse, my apologies. The shed is warm, not overly fragrant, but warm. You may eat with us, then, I am sorry, you must retire.’

The warrior also surprised me when he said, ‘I thank you for your hospitality,’ before dismounting and rubbing the backs of his legs.

‘Is there somewhere I can water the horse?’

‘The ox shed is under the eaves, there,’ da pointed. ‘There is straw inside and a trough with water at the side. Do not startle the ox, it is a temperamental beast at the best of times. You boys go home. There is nothing to see here.’ Saying which, da returned to his chopping and the warrior walked his horse to the ox shed.

I nodded at Diarmuid as he backed away, before following the aging warrior, keeping my thoughts to myself. I did not want to be sent away. I wanted this man to tell me all about the life of the Five Kingdoms I had missed. I wanted him to tell me why he was carrying wounds. I wanted him to tell me what was in the leather sack slung over his mare’s neck. The sack that looked suspiciously round and seemed to have blood caked to its base.

When he reached the shed, the warrior put his clenched fists into the small of his back and stretched with a groan. His horse skittered as he took off her saddle. I could feel the oppression of the forest that was making her nervous. Wolves were howling. Mists were rising from the forest floor. The night was always a time that was best spent under the thatch of the roundhouse, beside the fire with the aromas of cooking and the safety of deep sunk timbers.

‘You feel it too, Dornoll?’ he asked, patting her neck and feeding her a handful of oats from his saddlebags. She tossed her head and neighed. I watched the warrior duck into the ox shed and reappear with two fistfuls of straw. He began to wipe down the mare’s flanks, lovingly, cooing as he did so.

I could not resist and asked, ‘What is in the sack?’

‘What do you want, boy?’ the warrior asked, without looking away from his work.

‘Nothing,’ I shrugged, unsure what to say.

‘Nothing, he says. Well then, get lost. I do not like children at the best of times, but nosey children annoy me.’

‘I am not a child,’ I said, knowing that compared to the old man grooming his horse, I was hardly a man. When he lifted the back of his hand, as if to give me a swipe, I ran, but only as far as the eaves from where I could see without being seen.

When he had finished wiping down his mare and had hobbled her beside the shed where she could reach the water trough, the warrior returned to our roundhouse and knocked on the upright at the entrance before lifting the oxhide cover.

‘Enter, warrior, be welcome at our table,’ I heard da say from within. Again, his tone did not lend credence to his words. I ran around the side nearest to the deer path and propped myself against the logs next to a small crack, where I knew I could hear without being seen.

‘What is your name?’ the warrior asked.

‘I am Tiubh, and she is my wife, Gránna.’

‘Where is the boy?’

I nearly laughed when I heard da say, ‘He is using the last of the light to finish his game. As he always does before nightfall. No controlling the brat.’

‘He asks a lot of questions.’

‘Yes. The curiosity of youth. Mead?’ There was a pause. I suppose da was pouring the sweet liquid. Perhaps they were both a little nervous in the company of strangers.

‘I heard rumours of an invasion,’ da said, after the awkward silence.

‘It has been quashed the invaders put to the sword. More,’ with a thump of flagon on the tabletop.

‘And the leader of the invasion?’

‘Is dead.’

‘What of the high king?’

‘What of the high king, the bull’s ball sack asks. I can see where the lad gets his curiosity.’

‘I did not mean offence, lord. As a farmer, I need to know I am safe to continue tilling the soil. I need to know if the Peaceful King is alive. I need to know whether I should take my family and hide in the forest.’

‘Are you not already hiding in the forest?’

‘I meant deeper in the forest.’

‘I know, I know,’ followed by another pause. I could see in my mind the warrior holding up a hand, a mixture of impatience and tact. ‘He died at the hands of Ingcél, the leader of the invasion. The Briton executed him after the battle at the hostel in Glencree. Put his head on a cairn and stole all the horses.’

I felt my heart quicken at the news. I had never seen the High King. Hiding in the mountains, we did not feel the effects of his time of peace. But we did listen to the occasional traveller who spoke of his generosity of spirit. He was known as the Peaceful King. To hear that he had died, seemed to be something of an omen to my young mind.

‘There was a battle at Da’s?’ I heard my father ask. He was familiar with the hostel in the valley of Glencree. He and the other men in the settlement would often ride the miles to drink and talk to strangers about what passed in the Five Kingdoms. Those were the times when I would hear my mother whimpering in the night in time with his animal grunting and would invariably get a beating the morning after.

‘Yes, the high king’s entourage were slaughtered defending him.’

‘What of Da Derga?’

‘Dead as far as I know. The hostel is in ruin. The gates nothing but blackened wood. If he lived, I am sure he would have repaired them by now.’

‘So, there will be an assembly to select a new high king?’

‘There will, but I do not expect any quick resolution. Conery’s only heir escaped before the battle at the hostel. No one knows where he is and there are no suitable replacements that I can think of.’

‘What of your king, Conchobar Mac Nessa?’

‘As I said, I can think of no suitable replacements.’

Da hesitated then. I knew he was dying to ask more about the possible replacements. I guessed the warrior was looking at da in the same way as when he had suggested the ox shed as a bedding place, because instead he asked, ‘Do you think an assembly of kings is a good place to make a start in life?’

‘Make a start in life?’

‘Where to begin seeking a fortune?’

‘What are you getting at, farmer?’

‘The winters are hard. My crops are not bountiful. My boy is growing too big to feed…’

‘So, you want me to take him to Tara, where he can make a start in life?’

I slapped the side of my head sure I had not heard correctly. Could da be trying to sell me into the slavery of this warrior? It seemed unlikely, but there was always a glimmer of hope in my young heart.

‘Yes, maybe you could find him a foster family?’

‘You really are a horse’s arse, farmer.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He is a farmer’s son. Fostering is a privilege of kings, chieftains and warriors. What makes you think I can find someone to foster your boy?’ the warrior’s tone was incredulous. I sat there with my back against the timbers and my eyes screwed shut, willing the two men to say the right thing, the thing I had been longing to hear since the first time da beat me for getting in late from the forest.

‘But things have changed, lord. Since the arrival of High King Conery, the old and dated traditions have been replaced by more modern practices. I thought…’ da tailed off.

‘Ball sack, you did not think.’

‘I am sorry, lord. I only have the boy’s wellbeing in my heart…’

‘The boy’s wellbeing. You are trying my patience, farmer,’ the warrior interrupted.

‘Sorry, lord, I do not mean any offence.’

‘Boar’s arse does not mean offence, apparently. I will sleep on it. Now where is the food I was promised. I must eat and sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day, whatever I decide.’

It was obvious to my young mind that all talk was done. I stood up from my hiding place and walked into the roundhouse. I could feel the warrior staring at me as I leant my camán against the central pillar. There was a suppressed question in the intensity of the look. I remember making my face into a mask before turning to face him. I did not want my chance in life to fail because of any apparent eagerness. The old man did not return my look. Rather he sat staring into his cup of mead. I did not speak either but took the bowl of oats and venison from my ma and went out into the twilight to eat. I too had much to think about before the dawn.

Featured

The Reticent Detective – Trailer – Due for release in the autumn

The Love Nest

Laconto could not believe his luck as he stopped at the bedroom door and looked down on the near naked form of Welch. She was tangled in the top sheet, all that was needed in the balmy autumn nights, looking like she’d been wrestling a crocodile. Tray in hand, he moved to the window and looked through the half open venetians over the dusty rooves of the town of Baia. The noise of traffic fighting to get nowhere fast was yet to start, the air cool with the morning sirocco. From his vantage point, the inspector could see the island of Nisida and the volcano behind, taking shape in the growing light. Although he couldn’t see it, Laconto knew the city of Naples, nestled between the two, was beginning to waken.

Laconto was happy for the first time in a long while. After Ele, the soon to be ex-Mrs Laconto, the inspector had been convinced there would be no others; convinced that love had left him for good. He didn’t normally have the time for fraternization, being the Anti-Mafia Directorate Senior Investigator for the district of Pozzuoli. Nor did he want a repeat of the heart-wrenching separation, when he’d lost a wife, two sons, a positive bank balance, a villa and an Alpha Romeo.

To avoid a repeat, he’d decided to devote himself to his work. Not that he hadn’t already been devoting himself to his work, the reason Ele had filed for divorce. He’d missed the irony previously, because since the postman left a note telling him to go and collect the registered letter, he hadn’t been in the mood for reflective contemplation. Now, the irony caused him to smile wryly and look through the venetians again.

He thought about recent changes to his life as the apartment block opposite exploded in a wash of orange light. He looked back at the girl on the bed, one breast and one leg exposed by the Kese Gatame she had on the bedsheet. Welch of the American NIS, the Naval Investigative Service. She was a sbirro, a cop, just like him, and subject to the same unsociable hours Ele had hated and which had driven them apart as inexorably as the heat of a Neapolitan summer. Rachel was like something from a fairy tale for Laconto. In her early to mid-thirties, she was maybe a little older than him, vibrant, intelligent, driven like he used to be when he first started his crusade to rid the world of wrongdoers. He felt with Welch at his side, he would be able to concentrate on his fight against The Syndicate and not worry about how she was being affected by it.

He wasn’t ready to continue, though, not yet.

Barely a month had passed since his first major AMD case had ended in a bloodbath. The aftermath of that bloodbath had caused their romance to blossom, like they shared a secret, which was fuelling their burgeoning lust. She, an American, not only young, but also a feminist striving for the pinnacle of her chosen profession, the Directorship of the NIS. He a chauvinist in a service riddled with cops beholden to the very organizations he’d sworn to destroy.

It made him smile to think only a few weeks before he’d believed women had no place in the police and Welch had been a feminist with the goal of making it to the top of that elite fraternity, a place traditionally denied to women in any profession.

They’d been thrown together by a bloody murder after an American sailor had been shot over a little ill-advised adultery. When a hostage situation developed, Laconto had given himself up in exchange for the women being held.

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the near-death images. Welch and her team’s timely intervention with a tear gas cannister through the window had made the difference between living and dying; breaking glass and the hiss of gas giving him the time he needed to grab a gun from the nearest killer and shoot the other before he had time to react.

The bed springs creaked, and he looked over to see Welch had finally woken and was looking at him with a smile.

‘Those for me?’

Laconto looked down at the tray he was holding. Espresso, orange juice and a cornetto, an Italian croissant-like pastry. He nodded, feeling foolish. He’d never been much for domesticity and hoped going down to the bar next to the station would be considered the same as making her breakfast in bed, her last wish of the night before she’d fallen asleep, exhausted by their frenzied love making.

‘Yes, I went to the café for them. You were sleeping. I did not want to wake you. You were so like an angel.’

‘That’s so sweet, Bobbi, thank you.’ He smiled, unsure whether he was sweet for getting her breakfast or for calling her an angel.

He stayed beside the window, admiring the litheness of her tanned body in contrast to the fullness of her breasts. He again felt a surge of emotion and luck and lust. ‘Well, can I have them?’

‘Yes, sorry.’ He walked over to the bed and held out the tray like some sort of votive offering. She puffed up her pillows, sitting unconsciously with her torso uncovered and smiled as she took the proffered breakfast.

‘The café where we first met,’ she said with a smile.

‘No, no, we first met in your Admiral’s office.’

‘That doesn’t count,’ Welch smiled. ‘It was such a fleeting encounter.’

Laconto could see the smile in her eyes. She was, how did she call it? teasing him. Yes, that was it. ‘You are teasing me, I think.’

‘No, really. What makes you think that?’ The inspector was about to respond when he caught the glint again and realized she was still teasing him.

‘Yes. Ha, ha, very funny.’

‘If memory serves, the second time we met, you were standing over a sailor with a hole in his head and his face in a puddle of blood and beer. Every woman’s romantic fantasy.’

Laconto laughed and thought about it. An American sailor, Koswalski, had been executed in broad daylight because he’d decided to fraternize with the wife of a Syndicate soldier. Laconto remembered mutilated lips grinning up at him. The dead eyes and shattered Ray-Bans a direct result of a man unwilling to keep his cock to himself, an opinion the inspector had voiced openly. It was hardly a surprise that Welch and he had got off on the wrong foot. That investigation threw them together, tête-à-tête and it had taken the course of it for them to learn to trust one another. Not too surprising considering one was a chauvinist, the other a feminist and on sides of The Law who rarely, if ever, saw eye-to-eye.

‘Are you coming back to bed? There’s something I want to talk to you about.’

‘We have three days off. I thought we would go into Naples, or maybe we could drive down to Sorrento for lunch and on to Positano for dinner?’

Laconto could see Welch frowning down at her glass of orange juice. He knew he was coming across as needy, sounding frantic in his own ears, but he couldn’t help himself. He didn’t like the sound of the invitation. In his experience, although limited, when a woman said she had something to talk about, it invariably didn’t mean something pleasant. The last woman to use those words with him had been Ele, when she’d called to tell him she was leaving and taking the boys and the Alpha Romeo. The same day as the funeral service, he remembered. That night, at least.

His elation of a few moments before began to wane, replaced with a butterfly stomach and a need for the bathroom.

‘Yes, that sounds nice, but I need to talk to you first,’ Welch pouted.

And so here it comes, he thought. I knew it was too good to be for real. ‘I will sit sul letto, um…’

‘On the bed,’ Welch interrupted.

‘Yes. On the bed, but keep my clothes on, if that will not be a problem for you?’

Welch laughed, ‘Why, you think I can’t resist your ripped abs?’

‘Abs?’

Welch patted the muscle mass under her breasts and said, ‘Abdomen.’

‘Oh, I…’ Laconto started to stumble, causing an ejaculation of mirth.

‘I was joking, Bobbi. Sit,’ she said, patting the bed beside her. Laconto sat and swung his legs up, kicking off his flip-flops. ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’

‘What is it, Rachel? What do you want to ask me?’

‘Do you remember our first date, in that pub?’

‘It was only a few weeks ago. Of course, I remember. That strange pub in Monte di Procida that used to be a clothes’ shop. You pretended that you smoke and nearly coughed your lungs out.’

‘But apart from that embarrassing interlude, I asked you how you came to be SI for Pozzuoli and you said you were too preoccupied to tell me a shaggy dog story?’

Laconto nodded. He felt he now knew what was coming. It was not as bad as he’d feared, but he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for it. Looking backwards was something he’d managed to avoid for a long time and not something he wanted to contemplate, despite his psychologist’s best efforts.

‘You want me to tell you my life story?’

‘Well, not all of it. Just how you ended up as the SI.’

‘I am not sure I am ready to tell that story, Rachel.’

‘Well, at least tell me how you ended up as a boy in blue. You can tell me that much, surely?’

‘It is quite painful.’

‘How you became a cop, what do you locals call cops sbirri?’

Sbirri. Yes.’

‘How you became a sbirri is painful? How can that be?’

Sbirro. Sbirri is when there is more than one, cops.’

‘Sorry, Bobbi, I keep forgetting, “i” for plural.’

Laconto hesitated for several seconds before he answered. ‘My father owned a shop for selling meat in our village. How do you call a macellaio?’

‘A butcher.’

‘Yes. Butcher. The local Syndicate family demanded protection money. Only a small percentage of the takings they said, but they decided how much the takings were, and my father could not afford to pay. He was too debole, too weak, to stand up to them and the police were in their control. When they told him of the bad things they would do, he took his own life.’

‘Oh, God, Bobbi. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.’

‘What does it mean, pry?’

‘Ask too many damn fool questions.’

‘You did, then, mean to pry. Ma, va bene. But it is alright. Perhaps it is time that I spoke about it. The police doctor, how do you call them, doctors for the thoughts, psicologi?’

‘Shrinks?’

‘Yes. The police shrink has been telling me I must talk about it or write it down.’

‘You need to get it out in the open to get some sort of closure. My shrink is always telling me the same thing.’

‘Yes. I need to do that. Why do you have a shrink? You seem to be so normal.’

‘Where I come from, it’s a fashion statement.’

‘Oh.’ Laconto did not think he understood how exposing the inner sanctum to a stranger could be considered fashionable, but then there were so many other aspects of this fascinating woman that he doubted he would ever understand.

‘So, what happened with your father?’

‘He shot himself in the cantina, the cellar. Ho fatto un promessa. I made a vow that I would join the police and stop it from happening to other people. I was so naive.’

Laconto sat with his legs on the bed looking at the crucifix hanging over the balcony doors. What he had not said to Welch, what he thought she would not have any interest in hearing, was he was the one who discovered the body in the cellar. When his mother reported her husband missing, the sbirri told her he’d probably run off with another woman. It was more than a week later when the smell was so strong that neither Laconto nor his mother were left in any doubt as to where Laconto senior was. His mother had said junior was the new man of the family and had to go down into the cellar to confirm what they already knew.

The inspector had been twelve years old.

He’d stood at the top of the cellar stairs and flipped the light switch to see his father sitting against the back wall with his lupara, his shotgun, between his knees and his brains splashed up the wall behind him. At the time Laconto had wondered how his father was able to find the wall where he was going to shoot himself in the dark, before he remembered the lights were on a timer and always went out after an hour. No one had ever needed to be in the cellar for longer. No one until his father, that is.

Laconto looked at Rachel and frowned.

He didn’t want to talk about it, regardless of how much the police doctor said he needed to. And not just because of the pain. He didn’t think anyone should be put through the horror of the smell and the mess of blood and other detritus up the rear wall, or the puddle of puke at the top of the stairs after he had regurgitated his breakfast. He certainly didn’t think sitting in bed with an exposed chest was an ideal location for a woman to hear all the gory details.

‘Anyway, I kept the promise and joined the police as soon as I was old enough. And that is how I come to be here, the AMD Senior Investigator for the district of Pozzuoli. The end. One hairy hound story less to worry about.’

‘Is that it?

‘Yes. There’s not much more to tell, really.’

‘I read your jacket, Bobbi. I must admit, I didn’t believe it at the time, but apparently, you’re the best anti-Mafia detective in the province of Naples, if not Campania. There must be more to it than that.’

‘You want more?’

‘I want the whole sordid story, and you’ll not get away from me until I have it,’ Welch laughed and put her head on his chest.

‘I better make sure it is the hairiest of hairy hound stories then,’ he said, hoping the tremor in his voice was evident only to him.

‘Yes, you had, and it’s shaggy dog.’

‘What is the difference?’

Welch shrugged. There was no difference, but hairy hound just didn’t sit right.

‘Where shall I start?’

‘Why don’t you start when you became a cop.’

‘Oh. Okay, then. It started when I graduated from the Naples State Police Academy in seventy-five…’

John De Búrca

We at PerchedCrowPress are excited to announce the signing of our debut author, John De Búrca.

John lives on the mysterious and rugged shores of the West of Ireland in Galway. From a young age, John was immersed in the rich traditions of Irish oral language storytelling; amassing a vast collection of mythology and folklore. He joined a storytelling group when he could find one and started to hone his skills.

John’s debut novel, The Last Five Swords, is an epic fantasy adventure set in a dark and beautiful, ancient Ireland. It will be published by PerchedCrowPress in the Autumn.

John is working on his second novel; a prequel to The Last Five Swords.

Menai Straits

Writing the battle of Menai Straits.

Druidesses cause the XIV Legion to halt their crossing through fear. Agricola will lift them to a resounding victory.

Warriors beside the Menai straits

Hammer: coming in the Autumn.

Inspiration

One question I am frequently asked is, “where do you get your inspiration?” or couched slightly different, “why was I drawn to write about Naples?”

I suppose answering those types of questions will be different for each writer. I have knocked together a couple of responses I gave during the recent blog tour of The Alcoholic Mercenary.

Why I Write About Naples

I spent my career working as a writer and editor. When a contract came up in Naples, I had been in a three-month lull, so I jumped at the opportunity. I was not so much drawn to Naples as thrust into the furnace by an accident of fate. The city was dirty, corrupt, and overrun with criminality, and I loved it. More of a surprise: my wife loved it too. In fact, we loved it so much that we lived there for many happy years. 

Having been a writer for so long, writing about a location of such contradictions was out of my control: I could not resist. By contradictions, I mean such things as it being one of the most OC-infested areas of the world, yet the local people are some of the kindest (including the criminals). Core d’oro, the locals call it, or heart of gold. For instance, when we arrived, a gangster invited us to his sister’s wedding, which turned out to be the opening scene of The Godfather, even down to the local folk music and strange dancing. I am sure, somewhere on the grounds of the sprawling restaurant, a Don was conducting business as we dined on a sixteen-course dinner.

The Alcoholic Mercenary is mainly based in Pozzuoli, the primary urban centre (or commune) where my wife and I lived. We lived in a fishing village called Lucrino, on the outskirts of the Commune di Pozzuoli, a few kilometres up the coast. In the photo, Lucrino is the village crawling up the dormant volcano, Monte Nuovo. I took the photo from the restaurant where the gangster’s wedding was taking place.

Unlike in Northern European countries, the criminality in Naples is not bound by education necessarily: at the bottom end of the spectrum, the uneducated, unemployed masses, who, by the very nature of their society, turned to the mafia to make a living (I use the past tense because I am not sure if it is still the case) versus the educated few, who stuck their noses up, those with a puzzo sotto il naso — or a stink under their noses. A good education is available to those with money and not necessarily brains. Being taught to know better does not preclude Neapolitans from the criminal class. As an example, we had a friend who was a doctor. He was involved in an OC scam, where disability certificates were sold. He was quickly caught because he sold a certificate of blindness to a guy who was subsequently arrested for speeding up the motorway. After being stopped, the police discovered he was without a license, tax, or insurance and — it later transpired — without the use of his eyes. How anyone so intellectually challenged became a doctor should be a mystery. It’s not because it’s possible to resit your exams in Italy until you pass (as long as you can afford it). Our friend didn’t graduate until he was forty-two.

One of my many anecdotes about the contradictions of Naples involves another friend asking me to help him find his Persian Grey. I agreed. He told me the cat had gone missing in his local area, and we stopped by his house to run an “errand” before beginning the search. The errand turned out to be his retrieving a Colt .45 from a shoebox under his bed. Searching involved knocking on his neighbours’ doors and demanding the return of his cat with the Colt visibly protruding from the waistband of his chinos. We never found the cat. My friend confessed to asking for my help because, at 6’2, the locals considered my height sufficiently threatening that the Colt never needed to be drawn. Only believable when you learn that in Naples back in the nineties, the average height of men was 5’4. The contradiction of searching for a fluffy feline with — what was really — a cannon stuffed in his chinos never fails to astound me.

Of course, as a historical fiction author, research is paramount. Researching The Alcoholic Mercenary’s locations is probably the most problem-free of my projects to date. As I wrote earlier, I lived in the Commune di Pozzuoli for many years and know it very well. I suspect Pozzuoli has changed very little, despite returning to Ireland in 2006. I first visited the town in 1975 while on a month’s holiday. When I returned to live there in the early nineties, the first thing that struck me was how it had remained fundamentally unchanged. The whole area is known to live in a time warp. For instance, the local economy is barter-based because of a lack of employment. The doctor mentioned earlier was paid for home visits with local produce: half a pig or a demijohn of wine, to name but two.

Other areas I describe in the book include the airport at Capodichino and Bagnoli NATO base. I flew in and out of Capodichino on countless occasions. In fact, the scene where Rachel arrives on the apron to feel the heat through her shoe soles is based on my own arrival. I also used to teach Shakespeare to the children of serving US Navy and Jarheads at the high School on Bagnoli NATO base. As such, I witnessed the rundown nature of the interior firsthand. I also bought stuff in the PX on the base, possible because of Mary, my next-door neighbour’s, goodwill. Mary was a US Navy meteorologist based at Capodichino Naval Support Activity command.

I did use a well-known map app as a pro-memoria to street layouts, but that was all.

Some Inspirations

Another question that arose out of the blog tour was how I used my experiences as inspiration for The Alcoholic Mercenary.

Over the years, I had many experiences: from being asked by the local boss to go out in a Zodiac as a smuggler to owing a favour because a mafioso returned my stolen motorbike. I could write about the execution of two informants in the foyer of a neighbouring apartment block (palazzo) or eating in the restaurant where Maradona allegedly bought his cocaine. Or I could write about a friend’s father committing suicide when the local clan kept burning down his tailor shop because he wouldn’t pay for protection.

For the sake of this article, I shall restrict it to one story told directly in The Alcoholic Mercenary.

An aspect of Organised Crime that is common throughout the world: from various mafias and tongs to the IRA, is the concept of punishment. Any unauthorised crime tends to be dealt with swiftly and brutally. This is no different in Naples.

While we lived in Lucrino, there was a heroin addict who was known to do a bit of selling on the side. He bought his supplies from African drug dealers operating in the city’s hinterlands. They sold their drugs in cul de sacs laid out where no houses were ever built (also in the book). I know this because my bike broke down outside Lago Patria, and he offered to tow it back for me, but he had to run an errand first. The errand ended up being a cat and mouse chase around empty streets (and by empty, I mean streets without houses) with a car full of African drug dealers. In all my experiences, this was the scariest. The drug dealers in their Fiat Punto (four of them) were definitely armed and not affiliated because in Naples in the nineties, racism was rife. No one would deal with the Mau Mau (a derogatory term for African criminals). Affiliation was vital because it meant some form of control: a set of rules, if you will. The car chase ended up in a houseless cul de sac. After which, it involved exchanging a small fortune (payment for the tow) for a condom full of heroin that the dealer had tucked away in the side of his mouth.

The guy who offered a tow was skinny and always wore an open shirt and a grimy vest. He had a greasy ponytail and a broken-down Fiat 500.

Apparently, his drug dealing was unauthorised because he was kneecapped outside our local bar one Saturday morning while drinking an espresso. Its audacity would seem astounding, except no one would act as a witness, not even the victim. After his punishment, I only saw the dealer once more, hobbling down the street with a removable cast on his leg and crutches. I can only assume he either moved away after that or failed to heed the warning.

This episode is told in The Alcoholic Mercenary when Boccone kneecaps an “unauthorised” drug dealer along the seafront of Pozzuoli.

So, Why Did I Begin

Another question on the blog tour was what inspired me to write The Alcoholic Mercenary (as opposed to which experiences), such as outside influences, other authors and so on.

I always struggle when asked what the inspiration is behind my latest book. How far back do I need to go? Should I write about my favourite authors, personal experiences, passion for creative writing and all its figaries? Or should I just write that living in the village of Lucrino drove me to write books based there?

For me, a passion for writing begins with a passion for reading. The inspiration behind any book — be it the first or the last — must start with that passion. I remember reading The Lord of the Rings while bedbound with the mumps. I read the book in a week and began my first scribblings after putting it down. I was twelve. Of course, reading Epic Fantasy nearly fifty years ago has little direct bearing on The Alcoholic Mercenary. Still, it did mean I now have the tools to write, which I probably would not have otherwise had.

Authors directly influencing TAM could include James Ellroy (for his Noir writing style) and Andrea Camilleri (for his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Southern Italian law enforcement). There are, however, many more writers who have inspired me over the years. I must have read thousands of books since I put down LOTR. My reading tastes are not bound by genre. I could list every author I read if the article was not set at a particular word count. Still, it is, so I will condense the spectrum: I read Stephen King’s Carrie during the seventies in one night while babysitting, and, in contrast, I read Twelve Caesars by Suetonius over several days while researching a historical novel set in pre-Christian Ireland. Why? Because the Roman historian Tacitus claimed Agricola invaded Ireland while governor of Britain. That claim is the premise for a trilogy I am currently working on.

So, what inspired me to write TAM?

I touched briefly on my time living in the village of Lucrino. My wife and I lived next door to a meteorologist in the US Navy, Mary, and her husband and child. Many more US Navy rankers were residing in the area. Because we spoke Italian and tried to fit in, we were accepted into the local community. The Americans were not. Our neighbour’s car was broken into every night until they stopped locking it and left nothing of value in it.

On the other hand, we would go out, leaving all the windows open and not burgled once. That said, my motorbike was stolen one night, but a “friend” returned it the following day with notice of a favour owed. In the nineteen-eighties, that friend had been hauled off to the merchant navy by his older brother because he was the bodyguard of an intended murder target.

So, we have the ingredients that inspired me to write TAM: a young man in trouble, saved by an older brother; a woman in the US Navy thrown into the cauldron; a place of contrasts and conflicts. And finally, while we were living there (and Schengen had not been introduced), we had to report to a Police Inspector to get our visas renewed. The inspector in question was a well-dressed Franco Nero lookalike — inspiration for Bobbi Laconto, my version of Montalbano.

Editing

Whenever I get revisions back from my editor, her cover letter says something like, “Overall, Phil, I think the plot of The Alcoholic Mercenary is excellent – you’ve brought in all the key elements of the noir genre, combined them with tight writing…” (actual). In this instance, Georgia noted my “tight writing”. The tightness is not because I’m excellent at my job— a wordsmith like Winnie used to be— but because of the editing processes I follow. This issue of the blog describes those processes.

INTRODUCTION

Editing is by far the longest blog in A Technical Approach to Novel Writing. That is no accident. Editing a manuscript is the most difficult — and important — part of the novel-writing process, regardless of what approach is used to actually write. Quality is key. Once again, my opinion flies in the face of Stephen King’s adage that readers don’t care about quality, only about the story. I would argue that Mr King’s theory depends on the reader more than anything. 

Take The Thursday Murder Club as an example. At the time of writing, there are ~100k reviews on Amazon. 64% are five-star and 3% are one-star, and a further 3% are two-star. Reading the one and two-star ratings, a common theme is the poor quality of the book. Admittedly, it is a multi-million selling phenomenon, which obviously supports MrKing’s theory, except — in my opinion — the story is not particularly good, either. I believe The Thursday Murder Club sold because of the celebrity status of the author, not because readers don’t care about quality.

Today, it doesn’t really matter whether a writer intends self-publishing or to go down the traditional route, as far as I am concerned, it is still necessary to edit. Maybe it is my previous career talking, but I want my books to be the best they can possibly be, regardless of what my readers want. I can take negative reviews on the chin — though not very well, they hurt — but if they refer to poor quality work, then I have failed.

So, Who Pays the Ferryman?

The publishing world has changed where book quality is concerned. Gone are the days when publishers would foot the bill. In today’s market, they can’t afford to and expect an MS to be as near perfect as possible when it is submitted. Similarly, if an editor receives a manuscript that is not up to a certain standard, they are likely to refuse it. It is not an editor’s job to rewrite a poorly written book. A marked deterioration in the quality of books from an editorial perspective is not an accident. I heard that publishing houses have switched the onus onto writers. It is now not uncommon to find a glut of typos and grammatical errors in books released into the market, even by reputable publishers like Penguin — never mind the redundancy developmental and line edits would have removed. There has also been an explosion of purple prose, no doubt because self-editors believe flowery and ornate passages constitute good writing and there is no one there to correct them.

I suspect this fall in quality is because writers — given the choice of either paying the publisher to edit or doing it themselves — will do their own editing. “If I can write, then I can edit”, I imagine to be something said quite regularly in the writing community. This might well be true to a large extent, only not the writer’s own work. A common human trait is to read what is expected and not what is present. This becomes triplicated when auto-editing. I was an editor by trade but I will always have my books at least line-edited and proofread by autonomous professionals.

So, there it is, I pay to have my books edited. Sounds a bit like a baker going to the local supermarket to buy bread, but it is the reality of the world I inhabit. That said, it is still important to have my MSs as near perfect as possible before I submit them to my editor, so I employ a complex editing process.

What do I Watch For?

The obvious answer is typos and grammatical errors. However, a good edit goes a lot deeper than that.

I suppose — like everything I do as a novelist — how I edit is heavily influenced by years in the technical documentation arena. From a wet-behind-the-ears specification writer to a senior manager in a global SW company the key was always the same: getting the message across. I don’t believe the key should change just because the arena I am in is now creative instead of technical. 

Editing in the technical world is based on style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, The IBM Style Guide, and the Microsoft Style Guide, as well as internal guides. In my later career, as an editor, writing internal style guides was my responsibility. The last style guide I wrote couched terms like clarity and brevity, redundancy, accuracy, consistency, and navigability. These are all terms that can be — to a greater or lesser extent — applied when writing a novel. 

Clarity, Brevity, and Redundancy

The writing should be clear and precise. When reading, I hate having to reread sentences because they are unclear. It detracts from the reading experience and slows down the story. 

In terms of brevity, I do not write sentences of thirty words when twenty would do the trick (never allowing that guideline to affect pacing — if I want to slow it down, I write longer sentences). In On Writing, Stephen King says cut, cut, cut, and cut again (paraphrasing). I would hate to think how big The Stand was before the cutting commenced, but he’s not wrong. So, what is it I cut?

Personally, I am guilty of repeating messages worded slightly differently. This is redundancy. My editor actually finds most of these, but I do try before I submit the manuscript. The various audio edits help this (see the following). Redundancy is a major headache for documentation in the IT industry. Someone who has just bought an enterprise-level software platform doesn’t care about the team’s brilliance when developing it. They want to know what the story is. In today’s reading world, this is also true. Readers don’t care about all that flowery exposition writers tend to think is indicative of good writing. They want a story they can lose themselves in, not a story they have to dig out from a purple flowerbed.

On top of my redundancies, there are, of course, the redundancies created by adverbs and adjectives. The King wrote, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” Although guilty of breaking his own guideline, once again, he is not wrong.

Accuracy

Accuracy is key for me. Whenever I read a novel with inaccurate statements it turns me off. It is not only historical novels that require research. I recently reviewed an epic fantasy novel, where during training the sword master instructed his pupil to watch the feet of an adversary. Advice that would result in immediate death in a battle scenario. A little research (or a line edit) would have prevented that error. Another inaccuracy was in Patriot Games where Clancy had Queen Elizabeth commanding the Prime Minister, which, of course, does not fit with the British political reality. Only a little research would have prevented that faux pas.

Consistency

It is important to be consistent. I reviewed a novel recently where the author switched between metric and imperial throughout the story. This immediately made me aware that a professional line edit hadn’t been done, or if it had, hadn’t been done well. Consistency also refers to characters. They should be consistent except when breaking consistency is an intentional plot device. If your main character enjoys farting after eating, they should do so throughout the story.

Navigability

Navigability is — in today’s world — the least important aspect of novel writing. It comes down to a table of contents because indexes are not usually present in novels. However, with TAM — because it is set in Italy, and includes Italian slang, I included a glossary. For the electronic version, it was necessary to convert the glossary into footnotes so readers can easily access definitions with a minimum of distraction from the story (enhanced navigability). Some might say glossaries are not commensurate to a flowing story, but neither is confusing a reader. I have received five-star reviews because I included a glossary.

Overused Words and Literary Devices

I am yet to meet an author who doesn’t overuse something in their writing. One of my favourites is “look” and its variations (looked, looking, looks). During the final editing phase of After Gairech (2021), my editor found 411 variations of look in a book of 90k words (350 pages), sometimes, several on the same page. Too many. This type of overuse is easily fixed. As well as using alternative words, I fix individual repetition with methods that don’t require a thesaurus, such as restructuring places where they occur. For example, I find I often use “look” in dialogue tagging, which many experts would frown on anyway. With a restructure, I remove the tagging and the “look”.

It is not only words I watch out for. Another irritating habit is the overuse of similes and other literary devices. I recently reviewed an ARC of fewer than 300 pages (real: Amazon cited a print length of 320 pages, but many of those pages constituted front and back matter, as well as white space) that had 311 occurrences of like, most of which were similes (I didn’t bother researching the as similes because 311 is already high). Reading it was like being beaten over the head with a half-inflated sumo suit (pun intended). It was as though the author thought simile to be indicative of good writing. Perhaps, in some other hands, it might have been, but not only did the author overuse them, but they also did it extremely badly, “…like a hedgehog that has wrapped itself in paper beside the bins to keep warm”, being one example, where the author was describing wrapping on a present. With a lack of opposing thumbs, or intellect, I would defy a hedgehog to wrap itself in anything. Not only is this a bad simile, but it could also be classed as purple and redundant.

So, before I send a manuscript to my editor, I do a trawl of overused words and devices, metaphor and simile in particular. When I find metaphors and similes I make sure they work and if there are too many, I rework some of the occurrences. When I find words repeated several times on a page, I do a search to make sure there are not too many occurrences throughout the book, and not only on the page in question.

Show, Don’t Tell

To some degree, the creative writing world is filling out with the same level of jargon that has been plaguing the technical world for years. When I see sweeping generalisations like “show, don’t tell” I want to pull my hair out by the roots (I probably would if I had any). I challenge any writer to write a book without any telling in it. Just as I challenge any reader to enjoy a book without any telling in it. Where is the cut-off from showing before it becomes plain old purple prose? I am sure I don’t know, and the more I read about the subject, I am sure I’m not alone. What Chekhov is alleged to have said was, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” which is paraphrasing something he wrote to his brother, but gets the gist. Most so-called expert definitions I have read simply use it as a license to advise writing purple prose, missing the point entirely. One I have often read in different guises being, “If your manuscript is short, make sure you are showing and not telling…”, which I would reword to “…make sure there is a balance between showing and telling.” I saw a question from a writer recently that said how do I show that the house is red? If I had responded to the question — it wasn’t directed at me — I would have countered with, “does the house colour matter”, but that’s a slightly different question. The real answer would be, “you can’t”. The show, don’t tell advocates, would propose varying levels of exposition, but eventually a variation of the statement, “it’s red” would need to appear.

Showing versus telling is, of course, something that requires balance. If a writer wants fast-paced edginess at some point in their story, they are likely to lean towards telling mode. Exposition skirting speedy events (such as a chase) can lessen the impact. On the same token, wham bam thank you, mam, is unlikely to increase sales of a romantic novel. The emotion needs to be evident. 

Is wham bam thank you mam showing or telling? Discuss.

What’s My Process

When a writer thinks about editing their work, if they are a newbie, they might picture a stack of A4 sheets and a red pen. They might imagine a process of (for want of a better cliche) crossing eyes and dotting teas (error intended). However, editing a novel — and indeed most other documents — is a complex process done throughout the document’s lifecycle, which includes a lot more.

I’ve read many different interpretations of the editing process. Some I agree with, others, not so much. The following are the editorial stages I use during the production of a novel:

  • Developmental Edit
  • Daily Edit
  • First Draft Read Through
  • Rewrite
  • Second Developmental Edit
  • Audio Edit
  • External Edits
  • Format Edits
I have often heard new writers ask, “When will I know if my book is ready?” As far as I am concerned, it is ready when the steps in this list have been completed.

I will describe each of them in this blog issue, and explain the benefits I derive from them.

Developmental Edit

Essentially, in my process, dev editing is testing the story arc of a novel, which means filling gaps and removing redundancy, as well as testing timelines. Officially, dev edits would cover things like character development and dialogue as well as story arc, but I cover that aspect in the second dev edit phase because I perform this edit on my scene plan.

As mentioned in my previous post, I keep a spreadsheet of scenes, which is numbered and includes things like actors, POV, plot points, and status. On average, a crime novel should be around 80 to 90k words. For me, a scene usually ends up between 800 and 1000 words and so I aim for around 100 scenes in my arc. This is not something set in stone. For example, an earlier novel I wrote (The Reticent Detective, 2019) had 120 scenes in the original arc, many of which were cut before I went to print.

The following is an excerpt from the structure of The Alcoholic Mercenary (TAM).

There are several columns.

Scene: A brief description of the scene. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, just a pro-memoria.

Plot points: What the scene contains in terms of moving the story forward. Some schools would say each scene needs a minimum of three plot points, but I don’t agree. As long as a scene moves the story on, it can have as many or as few as required. In this regard I use three CCCs: change, causality, and conflict: 

  • Change is the essence of any story. Each scene in a story should cause some form of change, or a development. In TAM, when Boccone arrives in his hometown, he’s convinced nothing has changed but it has — his mother died and his brother is in prison; when he left ten years before, Rosa was not the boss of a Northern Naples clan. In essence, the changes are profound.
  • Causality refers to the domino effect. Nothing in a story should happen without a reason. Something must cause it. Readers hate it when something has been added just to make the story work. Stephen King covered it extensively in Misery, where the psychopathic nurse got annoyed because the writer tried to jerry-rig the return of his dead heroine, Misery, with a blatant deus ex machina (the hand of God, transliteration). It has to be believable. In TAM, Boccone returns to help his brother in prison, which leads him to seek work from the syndicate, which leads to him refusing to kill on Rosa’s behalf, which leads to Rosa wanting revenge, which leads to the freeing of Beni and his getting involved in the murder of a US navy officer, leading to my female hero’s investigation.
  • Conflict is what keeps a reader turning the pages. Conflict can be external (crooks shooting at each other; loved ones fighting) or internal (the hero trying to decide the right course of action). Internal conflict leads to the protagonist making choices, which are key to my version of the seven-point story arc.

So, when I edit a scene, I make sure it contains at least one of the elements— thereby moving the story forwards. If not, I’ll either modify it or cut it.

Working Y/N: I leave this column blank until I get to the second dev edit stage. It is an indication of whether the scene is contributing successfully to the arc. Writers must be ruthless here. Sometimes it is hard to admit that a scene is not up to standard. In the writing community, this is known as “killing your babies”. 

What to do: When the answer to the previous column is no, what action needs to be taken. Actions can include rewrites, deletion, the addition of a new scene, and so on. It is very important to be objective during this process. If a scene doesn’t belong, get rid of it (don’t throw it away, keep an outtakes file). Things to look out for are info dumps, padding — which means writing to reach a word count target — (I read a book recently where the author spent a whole chapter describing a retirement village, a pure info dump and redundant. A good edit of the MS would have removed it.), throat clearing.

POV: This column reminds me of which character has the point of view in each scene. From an editorial perspective, this helps to pinpoint issues with POV hopping. If you read Dune, you will notice Mr Herbert constantly hops between POVs within a scene. Since Dune was written, things have changed, and it is no longer acceptable to hop points of view in that way. Don’t get me wrong, Dune is still a fantastic book, and I would give it 5 stars all day long. Of course, an omniscient narration does not face this issue. However, omniscience is not the flavour of the day for modern readers. Similarly, first-person narratives do not face the issue.

Remember, I don’t wait until my scene plan is complete before I start writing.

Daily Edit

Each morning, before I pick up my quill, I edit what I wrote the previous day. This is a sort of copy edit, looking for typos and grammar errors. It is important that a writer refrains from doing this while writing because it will distract them and they could end up in a loop. If the writer does not have any editing experience, there are lots of apps out there to help this process. I won’t list any here, because a Google search would be more efficient. These apps cannot replace the formal copy edit that takes place after the first draft is complete.

I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on this editing phase. In-depth copy editing takes place at different stages in the book’s lifecycle. I basically use this edit to make the professional editor’s job easier.

First Draft Read Through

This read-through is where I wear the hat of a reader. It is important to have gained distance from the manuscript before reading it. When I finish the first draft, I print it and then leave it in a drawer for at least three weeks before starting the read-through. When reading, I do not stop to make notes or edit. If something glares at me, I stick a coloured index marker to the page and carry on reading. After I finish reading, I go back and mark up where I left the markers.

Second Developmental Edit

I do the second developmental edit after the completion of my first draft read-through. I complete the scene spreadsheet with the Working y/n and What to do columns. This constitutes the first draft rewrite. Because I run a developmental edit on my story arc, I find this edit is more of a formality than anything. However, I usually remove several scenes as a result of this editing phase. I also, occasionally, add scenes. For TAM, I actually removed an entire chapter that was more throat-clearing than anything.

Audio Edit

Self-editing is prone to failure because when a writer reads a passage they wrote, it is common to read what they think should be there, rather than what is there. I catch myself doing this all the time. Many will say “read your work aloud”, which is sound advice, as far as it goes. For me though, it doesn’t work. I still miss syntactic and repetition errors. I guess that the same rule applies to line edits: I read what I think should be written, rather than what is written. So, is there a solution? I suppose the logical answer is to have someone else read. But won’t the same issue apply? Yes, if the reader is human. If the reader is an app, then no. Apps will only ever read what is on the page. They might get the pronunciation wrong and most of them sound robotic, but they do the job.

I use two forms of audio editing: during the writing of the first draft I audio edit each Google Doc before I paste them into my skeleton, and I do a full MS audio read-through and edit as part of the rewrite process.

I think an audio edit is probably a writer’s best friend. I find a great many of the issues in my novels during a read-aloud edit. Especially things spellcheckers wouldn’t catch (that instead of than, for instance) and issues with repetition.

For the full audio read-through, I create a PDF file with all extraneous text stripped out: front and back matter, as well as header and footer text (page numbers in particular). In this way, the PDF reader in Edge only reads the story. 

I read along with the screen reader (in my head). This helps me to maintain concentration. I find a screen reader that highlights the word being read is the best sort. When I spot any errors (for both audio edits), I stop the reader and fix the issue, before continuing.

External Edits

I leave the line edit, copy edit, and proofreading to my editor. Because I have plotted the full arc and my work plan has informed me of when this is going to happen, I can plan accordingly. During the external editing phase, I work on something else (usually the garden, eight raised beds and a polytunnel take work).

I know when my MS comes back, it is going to be a mass of red lines and questions. This doesn’t depress me because I am aware of my limitations when editing my own work. My editor invariably starts the cover letter with very positive feedback before tearing me a new one through the manuscript. Rather than depress me, it gives me confidence in her because I know she is doing a great job herself. I would be suspicious of edited works which came back with few comments.

It is important not to just implement the editor’s comments wholesale. I always read and analyse Georgia’s comments before I do the updates. Sometimes my expertise is greater than hers. For instance, in an earlier novel (After Gairech, 2021) I used hurley to refer to the game. My editor said hurley is the stick and the game is hurling. This is true, as far as it goes. However, Dublin slang calls the game hurley as well as the stick.

Format Edit

What do I mean by format edit? Some might suspect I am talking about old-fashioned “galley proofs”, where a writer checks the printing proofs before the book is printed. This is not what I mean. The first time I published a book after it was in print I found a series of issues that neither my editor nor I had seen during the editing phases of the manuscript. Since then, I have taken to running an edit on both the eBook and the paperback versions of the MS. This catches issues missed during the editing stages.