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It was chaos in the prison as the lights went out for the third time in as many minutes. This time they stayed out, the only light coming from the lightning strikes which seemed to hit only seconds apart. There was plenty of noise. The thunder shook the ground. The guards shouted to each other in their attempts to lock doors and contain the inmates, while the inmates themselves made every effort to make this difficult including shouting contradictory instructions. For most of the inmates this was a game which they joined in with abandon. Anything to break the monotony and pass the time. But for Dave ‘the barber’ Cross, this was his chance. He slipped through an open door into the canteen, from there through the kitchens and out through an unguarded side gate. Three years, two months and fifty seven days into his twenty five year sentence he was outside prison and running fast.

He covered a lot of ground very quickly. He knew that his best chance of staying out was to use the cover of the late summer storm, and the chaos of people and traffic on the streets of a blacked out Manchester, to get out of the city and into the countryside. He also knew better than to head north towards home, so instead he stole a car from the first car park he came to and headed out over the moors towards Derbyshire. Taking back roads as far as possible, and avoiding major towns where he could, he drove until the petrol gauge showed red. He managed to get it off the road and on to a farm track before it actually spluttered to a final halt. The rain had eased somewhat but was still constant, and with the windows misted up he could not see where he was. Rather than continue his journey on foot, he wrapped himself in a coat that he found on the back seat and slept.

 

When he awoke the world was white with mist. Dave could see not more than he had been able to see the night before. He knew that he couldn’t stay in the car, however, so he set off on foot following the track the best he could.

It took him three hours to find a building, a tiny cottage. He tried the door and to his surprise it was open. Inside were two rooms, one a bedroom with little in it except for a bed and a makeshift wardrobe containing very few clothes. He thumped the wall when he realised none of them would even come close to fitting him, then realised how stupid a thing that was to do in a rough stone built cottage. In the other room there were two mismatched easy chairs, a table and two chairs, a cooker that looked like it belonged in a museum and a small wooden pantry. He raided the pantry for some bread, picked up a sharp and well used carving knife, and sat by the fire to dry out and warm up. Knowing that his prison clothes would immediately give him away when the occupants returned, yet knowing that it was probably suicidal to try to continue his journey in the fog, Dave tried hard to remain alert for signs of them coming back. But in the warm, damp atmosphere with food in his stomach he was soon asleep.

 

He woke he was confused. In his three years in prison he had become institutionalised, so the lack of noise and bustle was enough to throw him into a panic. He stood, turned, then crouched ready to fight. When he saw an old couple sat at the table watching him. Their expressions merely curious. The events of the previous night came back to him. He groped around on the chair for the knife. The old man spoke.

‘You looking for this?’ He held the knife up, ‘Sorry to take it off you, Alice needed it to prepare our dinner. You must be hungry. I’ve brought a barrel in from the outhouse that you can sit on. Join us, eat.’

Dave did as the old man asked, if only because he could think of no other way to react. He started to speak.

‘I…’

The old man stopped him.

‘Before you speak, let me say this. What we don’t know, we don’t care about. We don’t have a radio or electricity here. Some folk down in the village do, of course, but we’ve all got history that we’d rather forget. That’s how we end up here in the first place. The village finds us. So think carefully what you say next.’

Against his character, Dave did think.

‘I’m Dave.’ He stopped.

‘Welcome Dave. I’m Roy,’ they shook hands, ‘and this is Alice.’ She nodded. ‘As I said, sit. Eat.’

They ate in silence. After they’d finished and Roy helped Alice clear the table he said,

‘You’ll need some clothes. I suspect Eric’s probably got something used to belong to his son will fit Dave, don’t you think Alice?’ She nodded. ‘I’ll pop over there. Dave’ll help with the dishes, won’t you Dave?’

He looked at Alice. She stood no more than five feet tall, skinny as s rake and arthritic hands. A small part of his brain told him to kill them both, take what he could and move on quickly. But there was something about the place, and Roy’s voice, that pushed that voice well into the background.

‘Yes, of course I will.’

‘Good. And later we’ll discuss chores. I’m too old to run this place on my own now. I could use a strong pair of hands around. Can’t pay you, though. Bed and board. Three good meals a day and you can sleep in one of the barns. We’ll find you a chair so as you can sit with us for meals and by the fire of an evening. If you want it, of course?’ Dave suddenly realised that he had never wanted anything more out of life. Even before he had time to speak Roy added. ‘That’s settled.’ And held out his hand for Dave to shake it. ‘Just one thing. We’ll beat the boundary on Sundays. You’ll come along, everyone fit enough to walk does. Until then, don’t leave the farmyard. After that, don’t go beyond the parish boundary, especially in bad weather. You understand?’ Dave nodded. It made perfect sense. He was a runaway prisoner. For some reason the people in the village were happy to hide him. Why would he leave?

 

On Sunday Dave joined the villagers at church. Church in prison meant a chance to get out of his cell and talk to other prisoners. Church in the village meant hellfire and damnation sermons from the vicar, who Dave thought looked like he could be the prison chaplain’s older brother, followed by a walk around the parish boundary. At various points on the walk, for which Dave could see no pattern, they stopped while the vicar prayed and Alice shook some dried herbs while the other women chanted something that Dave did not understand. Afterwards there was beer and mutton was roasted over an open fire then served on thick slices of bread. The men all talking about sheep, crops and the unseasonably warm weather while the women mostly seemed to be talking about him based on the sideways glances and the way they giggled behind hands when he caught their eyes.

 

Life fell into a pattern for Dave. Hard work on the farm, helping out on other farms when he could, Sundays in church followed by a village meal. On the Sunday after full moon the whole village walked the boundary, otherwise they just got on with life. Dave even started visiting the pub once in a while when he’d been given a share of the meagre cash income, but he soon found no-one wanted his money. He could have a few beers each week in exchange for some task on one of the farms which he was happy to do anyway. It never crossed his mind to work out what the exchange rate was for his labour, he found he wanted for nothing as long as what he wanted was not excessive. No one asked about his past, no one asked his plans for the future.

 

One day Roy died. Dave had lost track of how long he’d been with Roy and Alice by the time it happened. Many years, he knew by the passing of the seasons. Alice woke Dave and together they took care of Roy’s body. They took it by hand cart to the church where the whole village had congregated. A grave had already been dug. After a short service the body was lowered into the grave, covered over, and people left. Dave and Alice walked out of the village up to the farm. When they got there Alice started to prepare a meal. Dave tried to stop her, and failing that to help, but she quietly pushed him away, indicated that he should sit down, and finished the job. After they’d eaten Alice went outside. Dave never saw her again. The next morning, after he’d seen to the animals and his chores around the farm he walked into the village again. He found the vicar.

‘Alice has gone. I’m worried.’ He said.

‘No need. She’s probably just gone home.’

‘Home?’

‘I don’t know where that is. She arrived here with Roy and has been here for years. But sometimes when a man dies in the village his wife leaves the farm to a younger man. Sometimes she moves in with neighbours, sometimes she goes home. It’s not unusual and not something to worry about. Just take over the farm. You know how we work well enough. Do what you need to do.’

Not for the first time since he’d arrived Dave found himself taking something that should have sounded strange at face value. He nodded, shook the old priest’s hand  and went back to his farm. He stayed in the barn for a few months, only visiting the house to cook and eat, but when it was clear that Alice wasn’t coming back he moved in.

 

Years past. Dave did what was needed on his farm, helped out neighbours and spent Sunday’s with his friends. He got into the habit of going for a beer in the pub on a Friday and it soon became perfectly normal to drink for free, but leave with a list of favours he’d promised to neighbours. People came and people went. Some died. But village life barely changed. It was hard, but not unbearable, and generally Dave was a happy man. He mostly forgot about his old life.

 

The lightning lit up the sky and the thunder shook the floor. Dave woke, looked out of the farmhouse window and cursed. He could see his sheep pen had broken down and the sheep were running on to the moors in fright. He set off in chase.

The rain made it difficult to see where he was going, and the lightning only served to take away his night vision. He walked his land, lovingly collecting his sheep and one by one carrying them back to the barn where he locked them in. The storm was still raging as he set off for the final one, an old ewe with more than the usual amount of intelligence for a sheep. And oddly, the one he’d earmarked to slaughter for a Sunday roast when it was next his turn. He walked his land, then the neighbouring farm, then right to the village boundary. Years of walking the bounds had imprinted on his mind exactly where it was. So when a lightning strike gave him sight of the old ewe trapped in a gorse bush a hundred yards outside the boundary line he stopped for a second. But his concern for his beast overcame his programming. He ran to her, caught her up and turned to walk back…only to see his route suddenly blocked by a fallen tree. He swore, and took off to find another route. But he was soon lost. While he knew where the village should be, and kept heading towards it, every path was blocked. Try as he might, he could not find his way back. Eventually he came to a farm track. Following it he came to a car, blocking the route. He felt a sense of déjà vu. Turning, he walked the other way on the track. He was surprised to come across a similar looking car in the track. He took off across a field, only to come alongside the same car again. He dropped the ewe, watched her wander off, opened the car door and sat inside. It was still warm. Despite his best efforts Dave was soon asleep.

The knock on the window was no real surprise. Neither was the drawn truncheon. The constable almost didn’t recognise the white haired old man in front of him compared to the dark haired young escapee he’d been told to look out for. But the car was the one that had been stolen in Manchester hours earlier and this man was asleep in it, so the constable was not taking any chances. Dave got out slowly and held his hands out for the inevitable cuffs.

‘I’m the man you’re looking for. Take me in please.’

 

It had taken some time to persuade the authorities that Dave was who he said he was. He looked twenty years older than he had when he’d escaped, less than a day before. But his fingerprints and other identification matched, and in the absence of any logical explanation he was returned to his cell. In the prison chapel that Sunday Dave looked very carefully at the chaplain. Who returned his gaze and mouthed the words, the village finds us. Don’t go beyond the village boundary. Especially in bad weather.

Back in his cell, alone but for the noise of a thousand other inmates, a tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2019

In the UK there were reported to be a little over 4,600 local libraries, run by local authorities to national standards in 2002/3 (statists.com). The latest estimate I found (theguardian.com) was that in October 2017 there were 3,850 and that approximately 500 of these are now run by volunteers, rather than the local authorities and paid librarians. I’m sure these are still run to a very high standard. But they are not obliged to run to any national standard. I’ve also observed, but not found any data, that many local libraries have increasingly limited opening hours.

Why should I, or anyone, care? Ignoring the argument from academia about the use of libraries rather than the internet for research (which is a big enough subject for another post on its own) I think there are three big reasons that libraries are vitally important.

  1. They provide free (or at least free at the point of access) reading materials. I grew up going to the local library once a week and getting library books. If I didn’t have that access I doubt I would have been able to read anywhere near as widely as I have. For some the library is the only access they have to books.
  2. They are a community resource. As well as the location where books, music and these days free internet access can be found, libraries also offer some combinations of meeting rooms, social spaces, classes and courses, a warm and safe space for people to study, a place to read newspapers and magazines etc. etc.
  3. A skilled librarian (paid or volunteer) is a joy to talk with. They can help you to find a good book to read, research materials, local knowledge and a wealth of other things. Google is simply not a skilled librarian, it is a blunt tool. A Google search will find you a million hits, a librarian can often offer the one thing you actually want.

There is another reason why I, as a writer, think that libraries are massively important. I guess that everyone knows that if you buy a book from a retailer the author gets paid. What you may not know is that if you borrow a book from a library the author gets paid. We’re talking pennies a copy (7.67 pence per loan on a library book in England and Wales up to a maximum £6.600 per author according to theguardian.com). But, it’s income. By comparison, if you buy a book from a charity shop the author gets nothing. (I’m not having a go a charity shops, I buy books from them all the time. I just don’t think that people always realise that re-sold books don’t make any money for the author.)

Authors are not, generally, rolling in money. We’re not all JK Rowling. Far from it, most authors, even those published by big name companies and whose name you may know, make pennies per book sale and less than minimum wage if you divide their income by the number of hours it takes to research, write, edit and promote a book. So why not throw an author a bone. Even if you borrow a book and return it unread (not that I recommend it) the author is still getting their 7.76 pence. If you have an e-reader and subscribe to an unlimited service (such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited) the author is paid per page view, so the author gets a return on your loan. If you only read a few pages (or if you read offline and your reader doesn’t register the page views) the author gets less in return, but will still get something.

At the moment there seems to be far more supply of authors than there is demand for books. The economics don’t stack up. But if the good authors are not making money (or at least some return) for their efforts they’ll stop writing. If you want to keep reading quality books, but can’t or don’t want to buy full price titles from retailers, please keep supporting your library so that they can, in turn, support authors. By all means buy books from charity shops, lend them to your friends and pass them around – above all authors want to be read and build an audience – but once in a while, and as often as you can, think about feeding an author and borrow or buy a book through a route that means they get some return please?

All numbers and links in this item are for UK or England and Wales. If you want to find your local library in England and Wales go to www.gov.uk/local-library-servicesIn Scotland it’s www.scottishlibraries.organd in Northern Ireland www.librariesni.org.ukI’d love readers from other territories to add links below to their country’s library service if you have one.

I’m off to swap my library books. Please join me.

 

© Chris Johnson 2018

The following story is a guest post, written by Meg Johnson. It was inspired by this Writing prompt from Pinterest.

Meg has co-authored a book ‘Rose Scar’ which is due to be published soon.

 

 

Mr Henry Brookwood was reading the newspaper for the tenth time that day.

‘Absolute rubbish. They make me out to be a fool!’ He shouted. He scrunched up the paper and threw it across the room. ‘I saw them. Why don’t they believe me?’

His secretary entered the room, picked it up with a sigh and put it back on his desk.

‘Go home Miss Berling, and take that rubbish with you.’

‘Thank you, sir. Good night.’ As she got her coat and hat she glanced at the story that had so enraged her employer.

Once again last night the wealthy Mr Henry Brookwood from Brookwood and Sons contacted this newspaper and the police. He claims that is late wife, Clara, and two sons, Charles and Samuel, are still alive and walking the streets at night although they were found dead in the Brookwood household only five days ago by the maid. The police are investigating their murder. Mr Henry Brookwood has declined to be interviewed by this newspaper, but has sent regular letters.

 

Henry worked late into the night. Every time his thoughts turned to home he found something else to do. No point in going back to that empty house, or worse, a house full of grieving friends and relatives all after tittle tattle! He convinced himself. Finally, with clocks striking midnight across the city, he packed away his papers. He placed on his coat and his top hat, grabbed his cane and left his office at Brookwood and sons locking the door behind him. No one would be around this late at night he thought. No need to speak to anyone.

It was a cold and blustery winter’s evening with a typical London fog. As he walked his mind started wandering. It drifted to thoughts of his wife and sons from years before when Samuel was just a baby and Charles was a young boy starting at school. As the happy thoughts came back to him Henry saw the fog clear for a moment in the wind. On the street ahead of him he saw his young wife and holding the hand of a young boy, and pushing a pram. He shouted and walked a little faster but as he got towards them the fog moved again and they disappeared.

Henry’s shoulders sagged as he walked the next few streets slower than before. His eyes moistened, making it even more difficult to see. His mind wandered again and he thought of the times he’d spent teaching his teenage sons about his business and that they would one day takeover after him. His thoughts were disturbed as he heard his name being called. It was the voice of Clara calling out to him, he was convinced. He stopped and looked around him, blinking to clear his vision. At first he could see nothing, but then he heard his name again, this time from across the street. As he looked the fog drifted away and he saw his wife and teenage sons. But by the time he ran across the road to them they were no longer there. Henry turned and in despair walked the rest of the way home as fast as he could. He tried to shut out all thoughts by singing hymns to himself.

When Henry finally got home he got the keys from his coat pocket to open the door. At first, hands shaking, he fumbled the key into the lock but couldn’t turn it. He realised that it was already unlocked. Strange he thought the maid should have already have gone to her rest by this hour. I will need to speak to her about that. he thought as he walked to the drawing room, planning to take a small brandy and cigar to try and help him sleep. But as he opened to door he saw four police constables standing, hats in hands looking down at the floor and the police commissioner standing by the fire.

‘Henry Brookwood I am arresting you on suspicion of murder of your wife, Clara and your sons, Charles and Samuel.’ The Commissioner stated calmly, adding, more quietly, ‘I’m sorry Brookwood, old man. I can’t stop this, so thought it was better to do it myself.’

But Henry had stopped listening. All he could her was the cries of his sons shouting Father, you’re home! and his wife patently telling them to stop shouting. They sounded so real to him that he was smiling as he was handcuffed and led away.

 

(c) Meg Johnson 2016

 

IMG_0046sOne of my stories was rejected this week. I got some really good feedback, and a request to submit more work to the same publisher – so I’m happy enough. But it did get me thinking. I wrote the piece with the specific publication in mind. I read a couple of their recent publications, then followed a story arc and broad plot that aligned with, rather than copied, their apparent preferred style. Essentially, I wrote to their genre. But did I write a cliché? The feedback said that the publisher didn’t want my story as the pay-off was something they’d seen before. Fair comment, and really useful to know when I either re-write that piece or write something else for them (or anyone else for that matter).

But it does re-raise a question that I’ve been asking myself for a while. I write genre fiction. Most fiction writers do (whether they like it or not). But we all want to avoid clichés (I think it’s illegal to write that without adding ‘like the plague’). Readers want the hero to complete their quest, the white hat to win, the anti-hero to both succeed and reform or the troubled detective to solve the murder. That’s genre. But when does writing genre slip into cliché or even worse, plagiarism? When does one hero become a poor imitation of another, and a third, and so on?

Very few writers set out to plagiarise others (except, perhaps, for some re-tellings of classic stories – which is probably not plagiarism…) but there are only so many broad plots, only so many ways that a small cast of characters can interact and only so many twists which actually make sense.

Here’s the question, then. How do I square the circle? How do I (or anyone else) write in genre and to house style without becoming repetitive or essentially copying what’s gone before. How do we write something new without going so far out of genre that we fall outside the requirements of the publisher and audience we’re aiming at?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – as readers, do you want to be shocked or do you want your stories to follow the usual rules of your preferred genre? And writers, do we need to be brave and break common genres? Or are we writing into ever decreasing opportunities to retell the same broad plots? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!

 

k12050275I’m on a deadline, so of course I’m procrastinating. After all, everyone’s more creative the closer to a deadline they get, right? Today’s procrastination – the word ‘deadline’…

The word deadline. What exactly does it mean? Why deadline? Why not timeline (I know that has another meaning now, but you get the point?) Professor Google tells me that ‘deadline’ means a time or date by which something must be done. I know that, of course. It also tells me that deadline is a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners are liable to be shot. (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/deadline) This second definition I did not know. But it does make sense. It’s also less horrific than some of the other potential definitions I’d dreamed up for myself. (I’ll leave you to imagine those.)

What I’m not so sure about is how the word evolved from the latter (but earlier) meaning to the former. Again, according to Professor Google, the use of the word has ramped up significantly since the 1970s. Why? Are we a more deadline driven culture now? Or is it a word that’s come in to fashion (relatively) recently to replace something else that was in common usage before then? And is any of this of any use whatsoever in getting through my to do list and hitting my deadlines? (Spoiler – no, not in the slightest.)

For my creative writing friends, I think that ‘deadline’ would be an excellent single word writing prompt (take it if you want – I’d love to see what you come up with!) Once I’ve got over my own immediate deadlines (time bound, not prison related) I might have a go myself.

Oh well – back to my to do list. I have deadlines!

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

Where to set a novel or story is, for me and I suspect lots of other writers, a key decision. You wouldn’t set a western in northern England (unless you called it Jericho… but that’s probably for a different post). Readers want locations appropriate to the action, and internally consistent timelines and locations (no skipping from Edinburgh to London in five minutes unless you have already introduced technology that makes that possible…and you’re writing in a future fiction/sci fi genre).

I am also quite a visual writer. I like to have a mental picture of my characters and the locations where key bits of action take place. Even if these details aren’t shared with my reader. It just helps me to hold these in mind when I write so that I avoid inconsistency.

I am currently editing a novella for summer release. Part of the action requires my heroine to sit in a coffee shop whilst waiting for the villain of the piece to meet a confederate nearby. It is a pivotal moment in the story, as this is when the heroine first identifies the villain for certain from a range of potential characters. All ok so far? Well, yes. It’s a simple set up,  and not particularly location specific. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is this. I had a place in mind when I wrote the scene. And last week I happened to be in the area for the first time in a couple of years. I thought I’d take a wander past. And where there was a coffee shop (with my heroine sat just out of eyesight watching the world go by) with eyeline to the building (with my villains engaged in hurried conversation in a door way) there is now…a hole in the ground and a big sign saying ‘Crossrail’!

It probably doesn’t matter. I referred to the location in passing, but not in such specific detail that a reader would necessarily be able to find it, or frankly want to. And the location is not critical to the story so much as it is simply a place for the action to happen. It could be anywhere really. (Let’s face it, there’s a coffee shop on every street corner anyway). So it really should not matter one jot what is or is not there any more. But..I just have this horrible feeling that my inner editor is going to force me to relocate the scene to somewhere that isn’t a hole in the ground!

Does anyone else have a view on this – either as a writer or a reader? Does it matter of the locations in a novel are real, reimagined or entirely fictitious? And if they are ‘real’…does it spoil the work if the location changes and the novel becomes ‘wrong’? Leave me a comment, let me know what you think?

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

People who are, and/or self describe as writers and authors are regularly asked the same series of questions. ‘Have I read anything you’ve written?’ (Answer – I don’t know, let me read your mind for a moment’.) and ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ (Answer – it depends, keeping my eyes and ears open mainly. That and Facebook.) But the one that gave me pause for thought this week was ‘Why did you publish your first book under a pen name? Are you ashamed of it?’ Forgive the cliché, but that is a really good question and one that I considered before I hit publish on Kindle Direct Publishing.

Publishing under a pen name is a well known phenomenon and (reasonably) common. George Elliot anyone? Robert Galbraith? Richard Bachman? Before anyone skips straight to the comments, I am definitely not comparing my efforts with theirs! What I’m actually saying is that if it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for me!

Assuming that you (dear reader) now accept that there is precedent, and have not switched off because this is an opinion piece not a short story (come back on Friday for one of those), let me answer the question (finally!).

I have recently published a novella, as an e-book, under a pen name. I did so for three very specific reasons:

  1. It is a genre novella. I prefer to call it pulp. It’s actually quite niche. A revenge story, with some gore and adult language. I intend to publish other work later, which will not be in the same genre or so niche. I also intend to continue writing niche/pulp/genre fiction. I don’t want my readers (assuming that I ever have any…) to be confused and pick up something which is well outside their expectations. Simple solution – write under different names.
  2. I already write, in a different field entirely, under my own name. (No, you won’t have read it, or at least it’s very unlikely unless you are a professional internal auditor or work for the same organisation I work for.) I wanted, for myself and for professional reasons, to separate the two styles of writing and content.
  3. Yes, I admit it, to some degree I am ashamed of it. Actually, not true. I’m not ashamed so much as I can foresee a time when I will be ashamed of it. This is my first attempt at a novella, and will contain plot holes and probably typos and grammatical mistakes. My defence is that it is a short, plot driven adventure story meant to be read on a train/tram/bus for fun, not a piece of literary fiction to be analysed and examined in detail. I wouldn’t recommend it to my mother’s reading group. It’s aimed at a very specific market and as yet I am still exploring whether there actually is a market!

You will notice that I haven’t told you what my pen name is…That is because this is an opinion piece not an advert for my alter-ego’s book. If you’re not interested in the advert I’d skip straight through to the final paragraph!

If you want to read the book, in the full knowledge that it is a different style and genre to most of the postings on this blog, it’s 99p/99c (or equivalent) to download from Amazon, or you can read it for free if you’re enrolled in Kindle Unlimited or from the library if you’re an Amazon Prime member. The links are UK: Amazon UK and US: Amazon US. My alter-ego also occasionally Blogs and tweets.

I’d love to know what readers who have made it this far think. Is publishing under a pen name duplicitous? Does it help readers when an author’s work in one genre is all published under the same name? Or am I simply trying to justify publishing work which I don’t want linked directly to me? (Although that ship sailed when I published this blog entry I suppose!) Leave me a comment, let me know.

Chris

 

(C) Chris Johnson 2016