Questions – Take Two

Last time, I suggested that would-be fiction writers might consider using questions as the point de départ for their stories. I concentrated on ‘who’ and ‘where’ and surmised that, with just those two, it’s possible to create quite a complex, detailed structure. This time, ‘what’ and ‘how’, can take the complexity even further. So here’s Writing 101, part 2.


What's going on here?

What’s going on here?

In order to illustrate the flexibility of ‘who’, I stressed that the answer might not be the expected human but an animal or even an inanimate object brought to life for the purposes of a story. The example I chose was a hapless mop and a bucket. Asking ‘who’ gave each of them a distinct identity with its associated characteristics which, in turn, might be developed further by answers to the other question, ‘where’. But if a bucket, mop or spittoon can be introduced as ‘who’, doesn’t that render ‘what’ superfluous?

Emphatically not.

‘What’ is priceless. For a start, it’s the key word in ‘What happened next?’ and ‘What if?’, both essential for writers desperate to hold the reader’s attention, but it also has its own mystery. ‘Who’ is inseparably linked with identity, ‘where’ with location. But ‘what’ can do anything. It’s unrestricted, free, a friend to turn to when the ink stops flowing (or the binaries stop doing whatever they do). Your mop hero hears a sound – what is it? The bucket sees an indistinct shape in the gloom – what is it? What’s the source of the mysterious glow under the sink? What’s in the head-shaped bundle of rags with that brownish stain on them? A tiny spaceship lands in the broom cupboard – what emerges from it? In the Vatican, the Scottish batsman (see link above) says to the Mother Superior ‘If the ball pitches outside the line of the leg stump or the contact between pad and ball is outside the line of either stump, then the batsman (or batsnun) is not out LBW even if the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps’. Her reply, inevitably, is ‘What?’.

When all the other questions fail to produce answers which nudge the story forward, ‘what’ will do the job.


We could say that the three previous interrogatives have generated content for the story:

How did that happen?

How did that happen?

characters, locations, objects and/or phenomena, but ‘how’ begins to draw them together, investigate their interactions. ‘How’ is where plots are born. When you have to explain how Chardonnay discovered that Henry was cheating on her sister’s room-mate’s best friend with a Latvian he’d met in the library, and how he reacted when the best friend told her publisher father how the dose of rohypnol got into the Latvian’s martini, you’re animating the characters and objects.

Better than that, you’re having to make them perform actions which are then interpreted by others around them (and the reader), and those interpretations give substance both to the character being observed and the one doing the observing. And, of course, if the character’s self-image and the observer’s perceptions of her are at odds, the plot spontaneously thickens.

Crime novels are particularly dependent on ‘how’ since, to put it crudely, they’re about how the killing happened and how it gets solved. But my guess is that anyone familiar with other popular genres could ‘reduce’ them to similar formulations. (NB Remember that this is Writing 101. More advanced students should consult the ever-relevant Principles of Literary Criticism by I. A. Richards or, perhaps, heed the words of Dr Seuss ‘No matter what you do, somebody always imputes meaning into your books’.)

That’s it for now, class. For your writing exercise this week I offer you a torque wrench, a newly-retired female banker, a black stain on the wall of her spare bedroom, a part-time fireman and a sealed casket. Attack them with who, where, what and how.

Next time, the final two: When? and most important of the lot, Why?

That? Is the question?

QsUnfortunately, we live in an age where rising terminals are becoming the norm. It’s not only teenagers and the like who are now adopting an interrogative intonation for non-questions, the contagion seems to spread to some parents, other adults, role models, and even broadcasters and academics who should know better. That, however, is the hand that’s currently being dealt so, if, as writers, we want to ‘get down’ with them all, our punctuation should reflect our streetwise credentials. For example:

‘So Jenny went to the gig? but it was, like, soooooo baaaaad? that people were, like, getting up on the stage? and the drummer was hitting them with his sticks?’


‘The Critique of Pure Reason poses problems of interpretation? so students tend to look for synopses online? They think that will be enough to get them through their exams? And the comprehension and absorption of its metaphysical consequences? can be postponed ad infinitum?

There are, however, genuine, legitimate questions which are fundamental to producing fiction (as well as some non-fiction). They are, of course, Who? Where? What? How? When? and most important of the lot, Why? Most of my fictional output has been crime novels but I’m fairly confident that these questions play a large part in most genres, including the one which is deemed superior to them all, the ‘literary’ one. So here’s a blog which I think our US friends might call Writing 101.

This is the easy one. I know there are stories ‘peopled’ by things, objects, usually treated

Close up of group of pencil erasers.

anthropomorphically: depressive but aspirational mops which live in dark basement cupboards with only an educationally challenged bucket for company; carbon molecules in the lead of a pencil burning with envy at cousins who form diamonds in the crown jewels but whose lives are transformed when they hear and begin to understand the meaning of ‘put lead in your pencil’; a discarded spittoon; and so on.

A step up from them in the league of fictional protagonists (although there are those who would deplore such elitism), come those which feature beasts, such as Animal Farm or much of the oeuvre of Dr Seuss. Then, at the top of the heap, there are  actual people. (Again, such hierarchical rigidity will cause the chorus of disagreement to swell even further.) In the interstices appear fairies, werewolves, starship captains, Hobbits, Paris Hilton, and so on, but in all the cases, answering the question ‘who?’ forces the writer to individualise them, distinguish them from the other mops in the cupboard or their fellow investment analysts in the Square Mile. Try it. Think up a name or pick one from the phone book and ask ‘Who’s this?’ In no time at all, you’ll find you have someone with connections, relationships, problems, aspirations.


mopJust as the answers to ‘who?’ work by reducing possibilities – choosing name, gender, marital status, job – so ‘where?’ works in the same way. Drop your bucket and mop into a Chicago basement and their angst will be very different from that experienced by their counterparts in Surrey or a croft in Caithness. The place will impose certain customs, behaviours, cultural restrictions or opportunities. Complicate that by having a mop manufactured in, say, Cuba, find itself in the basement of Enron mere days before it stopped being ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ and the plot has already thickened.

Such restrictions are, in fact, liberating. By anchoring the narrative to a specific location, Kilts9‘where?’ offers a ready-made back story in which things as diverse as kilts, rosaries and cricket bats can provide instant colour and mood. Then again, mix them up so that you have a Scottish batsman employed by the Vatican to organise recreational pursuits for its nuns and the available textures multiply further. ‘Where?’ not only anchors characters, gives them specific substance, the ‘elsewhere’ which it implies also opens an infinity of alternative narrative layers, perspectives, and even universes.

And that’s enough to be going on with. I shall return to my theme next time to continue the 101 course. Meanwhile, experiment with who? and where?. The richness your answers provide may surprise you.

The Relaunch of Material Evidence – but why?

Let’s forget the embarrassing teenage poetry and set my early writing days at the time when I was a playwright. I wrote stories and articles but my main output was plays for BBC Sparrow Conundrum Final smlradio and for the stage. Then, one day (I think for submission to a competition), I started writing a novel and learned that one of the qualities a novelist needs is stamina. I wrote in longhand and, after a couple of weeks, had a significant little heap of paper on the desk. Once you get a measurable pile, you want to add to it; you want to see an actual physical body of work. So I persisted, and the result was the original Sparrow Conundrum, which went through many revisions and titles before becoming the double award-winner that it now is.

Having proved to myself that I could complete a book, I wrote another one, again the first version of one that was going to win an award, The Darkness. It needed even more rewriting than Sparrow but eventually my agent started sending it off to publishers and Piatkus liked it but weren’t doing stand-alone thrillers. They did, however, ask if I’d written a police procedural because they’d like to publish it if I had.

So I did. And they did. And it was Material Evidence.

The editor liked the first version but not the fact that, about halfway through, it changed from a police procedural to a courtroom drama. Perhaps that was my playwriting self taking over. Anyway, she wanted changes made, so I cut it by 70 pages.

It was my first crime novel, remember, and, as I was writing it, I was aware that fans of the genre had certain expectations. I assumed that one of them was that there’d be some gore and violence so I created one suchME-web-flat scene near the end of the book. I didn’t much enjoy writing it but I thought it was necessary. Some reviewers liked it, others didn’t. One even went so far as to say that the fact that its author also wrote children’s books ‘creeped her out’, another ‘questioned the author’s psyche’. In the end, it wasn’t such comments (which demonstrate complete ignorance about what writing is and writers are) that persuaded me to change the scene, it was the fact that I’d become more perceptive about the breadth of the crime market readership. So the major change in this edition is that I’ve modified the violence in that crucial scene by making it implicit rather than explicit.

But that wasn’t the only reason. I didn’t need to change anything of the plot; there were, however, many things (not just the absence of mobile phones), that gave it a dated feel – a policeman singing the praises of some new software which nowadays is standard, the prices of shotguns, and other details which might cause the reader to pause and question the narrative’s credibility.

Hand-print-redThen there was the cover. My five Carston novels don’t obviously share an identity, so they needed branding and, since that meant new covers, it was worth revisiting them to make them more relevant to a new audience. I got in touch with Cathy Helms of Avalon graphics, who’d designed covers for friends which I admired and she wove her magic.

Whether the books now reach that new audience depends on other things, such as my marketing skills.

Damn! I knew there was a catch.