I spent last weekend (18-19 August) at a crime and humour writers’ conference and this is what happened… well, the beginning. There’s too much to tell you in one go, so more tomorrow…
Saturday 18th August
Having dropped my dog at my mum’s in Hertfordshire, I headed to Oxford, with Mrs Sat Nav taking me the last four miles. I checked in to the Lodge, left my car in the Meadow (and what a very pretty meadow it was) and headed to my room (typical student accommodation but nice large room with a very handy desk). After an English cooked breakfast (in which I always indulge when I go away) I headed for the Jacqueline du Pré hall and the first event of the day…
Kate Charles welcomed everyone then handed over to Conference Chair, novelist Andrew Taylor, who introduced Marcia Talley, whose speech entitled ‘Comic Relief: Or What’s So Funny about murder’, she said, she was reading for the first time from her iPad! A lady after my own heart.
A big fan of Shakespeare, Marcia said William used humour in many of his works and mentioned the Night Porter scene in Macbeth. I did Macbeth at school but can’t remember that – I have it on DVD so I’m going to re-watch it. Then she mentioned ‘Always looked on the bright side of life’ from The Life of Brian and Stephen King’s Tommy Knockers where a condemned patient was offered a cigarette but said, “No thanks, I’m trying to give up.”
Marcia talked about various characters including Star Wars’ 3CPO, Holmes & Watson, Miss Marple and Poirot, and also ‘The Thin Man’ which, coincidentally, last weekend’s interviewee Michael Murphy mentioned. That made me smile… and more determined to find it on DVD.
Although, she said, serious crime has overtaken humorous crime, there are numerous humorous crime stories out there.
Sometimes in her own writing she has been gleeful when a nasty character dies. She has killed off (in her fiction) a “former boss, ex-brother-in-law and the woman who married her father after her mother died” and said that because they’re all on paper it’s kept her out of jail. I loved that as I often say that bumping off characters is the only legal way of killing someone I don’t like.
Janet Evanovich was the next author listed, followed by Donna Andrews (We’ll always have parrots’ and ‘Stork raving mad’). King of caper novel, Marcia said, is Donald E. Westlake and his character, John Archibald Dortmunder. She then went on to mention two of Lawrence Block’s humorous crime novels and said that Carl Hiaasen books have been translated into 34 languages. Other authors talked about included David Martin (‘Pelican’ published in 2000, set in New Orleans), Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty etc.), Joel & Ethan Cohen (Burn after reading, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, True Grit etc.) – all with strong characters.
Marcia then talked about the film Fargo and said that if you read the plot you wouldn’t laugh, however the film ended up being very funny – the comedy being in the sly dialogue, acting etc.
Comedy adds variety, she said, lightening the tone especially when the description derives from banter, consists of satire; poking fun at people, events etc. It needs to grow from the plot, theme, setting… needs to be logical, not something that’s thrown in just to produce a laugh. It can come from minor or walk-on characters, and some authors choose animals for this, or young children / teenagers but when overdone or try too hard then they can stop the story dead. Put seemingly serious characters into an absurd situation and see their reaction to it. Playing characters against each other works well as do characters with quirky habits. Marcia said she writes about south Texas and has quirky characters and said that area of the US have exported a few to politics, which made the audience laugh.
Continuing the theme of killing off characters (or “kick the bucket”, “singing for the choir invisible”), she said we know we’re all going to die so it’s fair enough that we can be a little depressed. Laughter is another way of dealing with life… reading comic crime fiction is good for your health and quoted “Support your local Medical Examiner: die strangely”, which I loved.
The next speaker was Alan Bradley with ‘The Undertaker’s Jest Book: Or, I Want Some Red Roses for a Blue Lady’.
Andrew introduced Alan and said he used to read in a cemetery as a child (which, he said, explains a lot).
Alan’s novels have been optioned for TV by Sam Mendes and Andrew said that Alan will tell us how we can get our novels optioned which made the audience laugh.
Alan started by talking about a book he read and nicknamed ‘The Undertaker’s Jest Book’, the ‘I Want Some Red Roses for a Blue Lady’ had been annotated in pencil in the margin.
Alan then told us a story of a young man who proposed (to a grant panel) renting a premium theatre holding 2,000 people – then on stage having 13 ordinary straight-back chairs. As the house lights went down 13 men in tuxedoes and tails would walk on and sit on the chairs, followed by a number of stagehands who would wheel out cages of live chickens. The tuxedoed men would the strangle the chickens.
When the panel asked the man what the underlying theme was, he told them ‘the cheapness of life / death in plush surroundings’, reminiscent of 1920s detective novels.
Needless to say he didn’t get the grant – it was felt that the performance wouldn’t attract the numbers of people to make it worth it!
Alan then mentioned DH Munro, Darwin (the subject of humour being extremely complex) and John Buchan then talked about tragedy and comedy being two sides of the same leaf, quoting the following dialogue (which I’d heard before, or certainly a variation of it)…
My brother won a competition to go up in a plane
The engine cut out
He had a parachute
But it didn’t open
He had a second parachute
But that didn’t open either
There was a haystack underneath him
But there was a pitchfork in it
He missed the pitchfork
He missed the haystack.
Humour depends upon viewpoint, Alan said. If you’d been reading this as a sketch in a newspaper you might find it funny but if was front page news or happened to someone you knew that it would lose it comedy.
When Alan lived in Canada he started writing at 4.30am because his character Flavia (who lives in the UK) would be awake and raring to go. He now lives in Malta so is an hour ahead of the UK but still starts at 4.30am and researches first thing then starts writing after Flavia’s had breakfast!
Alan explained how Falvia was created: he wrote about a young (11-year-old) girl taking down number plates but stalled because he didn’t know her name. Suggested Margaret du Marchon but she shook her head. He reeled off a few named but it wasn’t until he said Flavia de Louth that she nodded. He then learned to listen to her, taking a back seat and letting her tell the story. He has written five books with her and she stays at 11.
On one occasion he said, she sniffed as a coffin walked by and said that death smells of wet bread. Flavia loves a good corpse.
Alan then moved on to punchlines. In a mystery, the story usually begins with the tragedy, pull the rug from under the reader’s feet and finally reveal the murderer – the punchline.
Alan was given The Busman’s Holiday as a child – his first introduction to crime and humour.
Mentioning Sherlock Holmes, Alan said he tells many jokes but they’re said with a straight face.
Going back to The Undertaker’s Jest Book, Alan referred to the marketing of coffins. He said they’re lined up in the funeral home in a ‘T’ with the most expensive coffin placed first. The family would ask if there was something cheaper. The most basic (and poor quality) coffin would then be next to which they’d ask if there was something of better quality. They’d then be shown the highest profit (mid-priced) coffin, which they would accept without hesitation.
The session was then concluded with a Q&A. Alan was asked whether readers had ever picked up on errors where Alan was right? He replied that he’d been told that poison ivy didn’t exist but he was able to prove it does. He was then asked if Flavia will ever stop talking? He said that she’s always there and sometimes they’ve disagreed with some of the suggestions, saying, “oh no, you can’t do things like that”.
A member of the audience (who had read his books) said that his family interaction very accurate. Alan explained that he has two sisters, had a most tormented childhood but that both had sadly died before his books comes out, which was a real shame.
When asked whether Flavia will grow up, Alan said that when he started the books she was almost 11, he’s now at the 5th book and almost 12, the timeframe being 1950 to 1951.
When asked a favourite word, Alan said he’d found in a 1896 Encyclopaedia the word “crinkle” which he loved and said isn’t used enough.
Marcia was then asked about the appeal of antagonists, between gruesome and comic, why more are gruesome. She said that readers enjoy thrills and know it’s not going to happen to them.
I then asked Marcia who her favourite character is and whether she had had plans for her characters but they’d refused to let her carry them out. She said she’d had a character who had put his arm around (married) Hannah which Marcia hadn’t expected.
Marcia and Alan were then asked at how titles can hint at the comedy within.
Marcia explained that when she started out, her titles were all going to be from Shakespeare but for her fourth novel she was with new publisher and they overrode her ‘Killing Frost’ which RD Wingfield had used she they didn’t want Marcia’s readers to be confused so it became ‘In Death’s Shadow’.
They were then asked whether translations of humorous crime were successful?
Marcia said that one-liners wouldn’t translate well and Alan explained that a Polish translation of one of his book’s titles was ‘herring’s ear in sour cream’, although added that it was perfect!
Like most writing events, the atmosphere was very down-to-earth and friendly, this being added to by microphone issues although when the roaming mic had its batteries replaced the audience cheered!
Part 3 tomorrow with Barry Forshaw and L.C. Tyler, the second panel of six!
Part 1, by the way, was just me last Sunday mentioning I’d been and would type up my notes and blog about them.
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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.