The Germ of an Idea: where a book came from

It’s release day for my new thriller Non-Stop till Tokyo right now (click for blurb and extract), which has me thinking about where this book came from.

Well, in part it sprang from my time living in Japan. I could blog for months on that. It was actually quite hard not to write the book as a travelogue with long digressions into food and scenery, and the temptation to bore you with my holiday snaps is strong. (I won’t.) Suffice to say that we travelled widely, made excellent friends, ate extraordinary food, stayed in beautiful places, drank a lot of everything, sat under cherry blossom, watched kabuki and sumo wrestling…no, shut up, travelogue. One of my favourite experiences was getting so drunk on lemon sours that I spent hours in an animated argument about Lord of the Rings with an equally drunk friend. I was talking to Mr KJC about it the next day, when he pointed out that I don’t speak Japanese and our friend didn’t speak English. I have no memory of this being an issue at the time.

Anyway, I wanted to set a book there. Why would I not? But a setting’s not enough, you need a plot. And then someone told me a rather dull anecdote…

DIGRESSION KLAXON

Here’s the thing about writing, you don’t know what will spark ideas. Remember the ultra-violent Charles Bronson flick Death Wish? It’s based on the Brian Garfield book, about a man whose wife and daughters are horribly abused and murdered/put in a coma, seeking vigilante revenge. A cry of rage against the powerlessness of the law against criminals and a demand for bloody revenge against offenders.

According to Lawrence Block’s wonderful Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, the germ of the idea for the book was…someone slashed the top of Garfield’s convertible.

Seriously. He took his impotent fury at an act of minor vandalism and did what authors do: turned it up to 11. Death Wish was hugely successful as book and film, but I can’t get over the fact that this is really a story about A Man Whose Car Got Slightly Vandalised.

DIGRESSION ENDS

So, this dull anecdote. Basically, Japanese doesn’t have an ‘l’ or an ‘r’. The sound transliterated as ‘r’ in roman is between the two. (There are people in the world who apparently find it amusing that non-English speakers struggle to hear or make sounds they haven’t grown up with. I suggest those people try visiting people with a click language and seeing how well they do.) Anyway, it is a fact of Japanese that it doesn’t have the sounds of English ‘r’ and ‘l’ (or ‘v’, or ‘w’, come to that).

The Dull Anecdote

A Tokyo foreign office had two British women called Kelly and Kerry. Many of the Japanese staff couldn’t hear or pronounce the difference between the names, and thus confusion frequently arose.

~Fin~

[Edit: I have been reminded that the point of the story was that, with only two gaijin women in the office, it was pretty rubbish luck that they both had the ‘same’ name. You may or may not think this improves the drama levels.]

This is not a story that’s going to get you invited on a chat show. But it sat in my brain, as I thought: yeah, but suppose. Suppose you had two women, constantly confused. Suppose one of them decided to use that. Suppose she set the other one up to take the fall for a crime. Suppose they didn’t work in an office, but somewhere a lot more edgy, meeting a lot nastier people…

There was a lot of supposing to be done. I added a hostess bar, a yakuza gang, a big Samoan-American hero with a terrible attitude an erratic drug dealer with useful friends. I added a panicked flight through Japan, a lot of languages, a lot of violence. I added murder.

But the germ of it was a not-very exciting anecdote. And, just as Death Wish was once Really Annoyed About Minor Vandalism, Non-Stop Till Tokyo began life as Please Get My Name Right, Jeez.

I prefer the anecdote my way.

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Non-Stop till Tokyo  is out now from Samhain, via your local electronic retailer. Share stories of where your book came from in the comments! Or anecdotes, as long as they’re more interesting than that one.

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Non-Stop Till Tokyo: promo and book giveaway

[Edit: Draw made, winners contacted!]

My m/f contemporary thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo comes out with Samhain on 29 April. Cover by Angela Waters, a thing of beauty:

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A nice review on Dear Author already!

This one is heavy on the thrills so if you’re following this blog for the publishing/editing rather than the romance, it may be more up your street than my other books. Find out for free: I‘m giving away two copies to randomly selected commenters on this post, to draw on 27 April. If you’re reading this on Goodreads, please come comment on my blog or I might miss you. It’s cool over here, honest.

I will be writing more interesting things about this next week but I’m technically still on holiday. However, here is a link to an amazing song that I listened to a lot while I was writing this. It’s by Pizzicato 5, perhaps Japan’s greatest ever band. (The title is a nod to their brilliant song ‘Non Stop to Tokyo’, but the mood of this one fits the book better.)

 

Non-Stop Till Tokyo

A man with a past is her only hope for the future.

Kerry Ekdahl’s mixed heritage and linguistics skills could have made her a corporate star. Instead, she’s a hostess in a high-end Tokyo bar, catering to businessmen who want conversation, translation and flirtation. Easy money, no stress. Life is good—until she’s framed for the murder of a yakuza boss.

Trapped in rural Japan with the gangsters closing in, Kerry doesn’t stand a chance. Then help arrives in the menacing form of Chanko, a Samoan-American ex-sumo wrestler with a bad attitude, a lot of secrets, and a mission she doesn’t understand.

Kerry doesn’t get involved with dangerous men. Then again, she’s never had one on her side before. And the big, taciturn fighter seems determined to save her life, even if they rub each other the wrong way.

Then her friends are threatened, and Kerry has no choice but to return to Tokyo and face the yakuza. Where she learns, too late, that the muscle man who’s got her back could be poised to stab it.

Warning: Contains graphic violence (I’m really not kidding about this), swearing, and implied sexual abuse.

And now for something completely different: writing in a new area

My new book, Non-Stop Till Tokyo, is completely different to everything I’ve published to date.

[pause for readers to say either ‘WHAT? NOOOOOO’ or ‘Oh, thank God’, to taste.]

It is, undeniably, a funny feeling. So far I’ve written…pause for maths…three shortish novels and five short stories all of which are paranormal mystery m/m romance set in Victorian England; plus one shortish novel which is a m/m pulp adventure/romance set in Edwardian England, without magic, but with lots of period atmosphere, stiff upper lip and nice clothes.

Non-Stop Till Tokyo is a long m/f romantic suspense thriller set in contemporary Tokyo, with a bar girl and a thug on the run from the yakuza. Yep, plenty of readership crossover there.

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It’s a complicated thing, when writers move genres. Many simply adopt two identities (or more for super-prolific authors trying not to flood the market. John Creasey wrote an estimated 550 books under 28 pen names.). It isn’t usually a matter of keeping a secret, rather of letting the reader be certain of what they’re getting. Ruth Rendell for twisty mystery; Barbara Vine for Gothic. Iain Banks for contemporary disturbia; Iain M Banks for sci fi. Gore Vidal for history, politics, satire; Edgar Box for mystery novels. (Yes, really.) JK Rowling for buckets of money; Robert Galbraith for 1500 copies through Bookscan.

Some romance writers do the same within genre, using different identities for different types of romance – very often because they’re prolific authors, or because they have several very distinct voices. In this case I haven’t, largely because it didn’t occur to me, my publisher didn’t suggest it, and when the subject was raised I felt uncomfortable at the idea. Tokyo is a much more mainstream, much longer book, with the emphasis pretty heavily on the suspense, and as such it might well appeal to quite a different market. But it is still being published as a romance – m/f rather than m/m. If I published an experimental literary novel, or a children’s picture book, there would be a very strong reason for a new identity to avoid confusion, bewilderment and dismay from people checking out the backlist (or, indeed, frontlist). Ditto if I had a massive body of work (I wish) and a marketing imperative to separate it out into strands. But since I don’t, and since I’d like to live in a world where romance is romance regardless of gender, writing as KJ Charles across the board is, in the tiniest and least significant way possible, my way of asserting that.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for a fairly violent, fast moving and somewhat unusual thriller, Non-Stop Till Tokyo is out this month. If you’re looking for my next m/m, that’s Think of England, in July.

In other news, I have a cover for Flight of Magpies (October) now! In fact, I have all four Magpie covers, including the one for free short A Case of Spirits, coming Jan 15, and just look how cool they are together.

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Non-Stop Till Tokyo

A man with a past is her only hope for the future.

Kerry Ekdahl’s mixed heritage and linguistics skills could have made her a corporate star. Instead, she’s a hostess in a high-end Tokyo bar, catering to businessmen who want conversation, translation and flirtation. Easy money, no stress. Life is good—until she’s framed for the murder of a yakuza boss.

Trapped in rural Japan with the gangsters closing in, Kerry doesn’t stand a chance. Then help arrives in the menacing form of Chanko, a Samoan-American ex-sumo wrestler with a bad attitude, a lot of secrets, and a mission she doesn’t understand.

Kerry doesn’t get involved with dangerous men. Then again, she’s never had one on her side before. And the big, taciturn fighter seems determined to save her life, even if they rub each other the wrong way.

Then her friends are threatened, and Kerry has no choice but to return to Tokyo and face the yakuza. Where she learns, too late, that the muscle man who’s got her back could be poised to stab it.

Warning: Contains graphic violence (I’m not kidding about this), swearing, and implied sexual abuse.

 

Non Stop Till Tokyo comes out on 29 April from Samhain. Next time, some cool stuff about Japan, plus a link to some good music. I feel almost modern.

Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

I’ve been editing, reading and writing a lot of historical fiction recently, and I have anachronism and accuracy on my mind.

Now, of course any historical fiction will be anachronistic by its nature, even if the author does her best to think herself into the worldview and language. There are people who can do an incredible job of that. Paul Kingsnorth has just written a novel that ventriloquises 11th-century English in a mostly comprehensible way.

With my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind.

For 273 pages. Gosh.

For most of us, telling the story comes before authenticity, certainly at this level. I have no idea how many years of knowledge and hard work Kingsnorth or Adam Thorpe or Hilary Mantel have to call on to do their impersonations of the past, but most of us don’t have the time and space for that kind of ultra deep research, nor is that what most readers necessarily want, certainly not in genre fiction. I will be reading the Kingsnorth book, as it looks amazing, but I don’t have any regrets that Alex Beecroft’s recent and lovely Anglo-Saxon romance isn’t written this way.

Still, there are a number of pitfalls for those of us without history degrees that you can at least look out for.

The most obvious is use of anachronistic language. I’m not talking about using ‘Okay’ in a Regency romance here, I assume you’re better than that. (Though people do it. My earliest spotted use of Okay was in a flung-across-the-room thriller starring William Shakespeare.

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

As it happens, ‘Okay’ is recorded in English as early as 1908. However, nobody will believe this, so you are well advised not to use it till the Second World War.)

However, it’s easy to be caught out even if you’re careful. As far as I’m aware, nobody has yet set up an online etymology checker so you can plug in the year 1888, run your MS through the OED and have it flag words dating from later. (I wish someone would. Get on that, IT people.) So you have to be very word aware. Read in the period, look hard at what you type.

Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origin has been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking. A recent BBC drama set in 1950 referred to people working ‘twenty-four/seven’. In 1950? And your Victorian hero cannot ‘kick start’ the heroine’s moribund lace-making business because that’s a phrase that comes from motorbikes. You might as well have him reboot it.

I’m currently editing a book set in 1650 in which the narrative describes a character as silhouetted against the sky. But ‘silhouette’ is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name. It comes by a meandering path (‘meander’: a winding Greek river; you’re fine with this unless you’re writing prehistoric, in which case ug ug grunt) from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister of the 1760s, whose austerity measures made his name synonymous with cheap stuff, like cut-out black paper portraits instead of oil paintings – the eponymous silhouettes.

So you obviously can’t have a character in a medieval novel talk about a silhouette. Does it mean the narrative can’t use it in description? I say no, you shouldn’t, because it risks jolting the historically minded reader out of period, just as I wouldn’t allow a Regency character to carry out a boycott or a Victorian to act as a quisling. But I’m well aware those are examples of words I know. There will be a lot I miss.

Then there are habits of mind and action where it’s equally easy to be thoughtlessly modern. Let’s say we’re in a medieval setting and the gang of vagabond rogues need to search a house in a hurry. One says, ‘Meet back here in five minutes.’ How do they know? They don’t have watches. Church clocks don’t chime minutes. Can people who’ve never had easy access to timepieces even think in terms of five minutes?

Or swimming. Prior to the late Victorian age, if your character can swim, you need to know how they learned and why, because most people simply couldn’t. The brilliant Patrick O’Brien Napoleonic War novels show that the hero Jack Aubrey can swim, but stress how unusual that was. Most sailors, if shoved off the edge of a boat, went under. You can’t simply assume your heroes can get over the river that way.

There are other modern habits that are hard to break. My bugbear is smoking, or the lack of it. I don’t smoke, I have very few friends who smoke, I don’t have it in my house and it’s banned in public places. Smoking is not part of my life. Therefore I am perfectly capable of writing an entire book set in Victorian or Edwardian times where nobody smokes. That’s absurdly unlikely.

I probably won’t ever do a smoking hero for three reasons:

  • Lots of readers see it as deeply unattractive
  • The inevitable copy edits. (‘The hero has lit a cigarette three times in this scene without smoking or stubbing one out. Please review.’ ‘He fell in the water, how has he got a cigarette lit?’ ‘Hero hasn’t smoked in five chapters, isn’t he craving yet?’ ARGH.)
  • I don’t want my hero to die of lung cancer twenty years after the book ends. (This is my real reason, embarrassingly.)

But this shouldn’t stop villains or minor characters or someone from lighting up. My historical books should be wreathed in smoke. Yet it never crosses my 21st-century smoke-free mind to put it in.

Ahistorical attitudes are a blog (or a book) in themselves and one I’ll be doing later on. I merely note here that if your Regency hero believes in racial equality and the rights of man, hangs out with his servants, treats women as equals and doesn’t care what people think of him, you need to explain how and why he got all these attitudes because they definitely didn’t come as standard. My Victorian hero of The Magpie Lord does at least three of those things because his very specific backstory – gay, exiled to China as a young man, living on the streets with his servant/henchman, loathes his family – has caused him to see the world differently. Yours might have a completely different reason. As long as there is one.

Oh, and one more thing: names and titles. There is no excuse for sloppiness here. The names will probably be in the first sentence of the blurb; if you get them wrong it’s hard to believe anything else will go well. Take ten minutes to look at period documents and see what people are called. For British titles, look up how to use them here. It is insultingly lazy and embarrassingly cloth-eared to refer to Sir Richard Burton as ‘Sir Burton’; it’s really not hard to find examples of how that works. (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are all over the internet, and never as Sir McKellen and Sir Stewart.) The next time I see this, the book is going back to the author wrapped around a rock.

Some authors may well feel that their fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller doesn’t need to be burdened by a ton of research just because it’s also Victorian. Fine, yes, the world is full of readers like Rachel from Friends:

What period is it from?

It’s from yore. Like, the days of yore, you know?

Yes, those readers won’t notice anything odd in Duke Bobby Smith of Manchester, or alternatively will call your research sloppy because your Victorian novel has trains and everyone knows trains are modern. Life is hard.

But if you’re making any attempt to write historical fiction, rather than contemporary fiction in silly hats, you need to write (and edit) for the people who do know and care, to the best of your abilities. Which makes historical fiction much like any other kind, really.

How much do you care about accuracy? What’s your favourite historical blooper? Who gives good history? Tell me your thoughts…