On August 20th 1968, the day of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, a striking, dark haired woman known only as ‘Connell’ walked into the central post office in Prague and made arrangements to send a package to London.
Had she been followed by the secret police? Had she thrown off her tail? Or had surveillance during the Prague Spring grown so lax that she and her parcel slipped through unnoticed? The latter seems unlikely. In the run-up to the Soviet-led invasion, tensions were high and wild stories had been circulating.
East German propaganda claimed that the woman’s Hollywood entourage were fifth columnists come to arm the counter-revolutionaries. Another rumour had a CIA team in the area – under the cover of the movie unit – hunting for buried Nazi loot.
So who was the package meant for?
Well, that would be me.
You see, this isn’t the start of some potboiler; it’s the third of three blog posts about family stuff that has inspired my recent stories. First there was the box under the bed that may have had a human head in it (but didn’t). Then there was the typewriter that genuinely did have a connection to ‘Lucky’ Luciano. And now it’s the Czech stamps my mother kept for me – my birthright, she said - because of the historic postmark.
Maureen Connell was a family friend, although all those ties have sadly unravelled now. She was an actress, later a writer, who was married to the film director John Guillermin. (It was Guillermin who always called her ‘Connell’, and it stuck.)
The movie he was shooting - with or without embedded CIA agents – was The Bridge at Remagen, a big budget war picture starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn, in which newly liberalised Czechoslovakia was doubling for Nazi Germany in its dying days. The way things had turned out, with the Red Army massing at the borders, 20th August 1968 was a pretty bad day to find yourself in an American film unit equipped with a squadron of M-24 tanks and other assorted weaponry. (There was a Radio 4 play a few years ago, Solo Behind the Iron Curtain, that dramatised some of the ensuing events, with Robert Vaughn playing himself, escaping for the border.)
But much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of any ex-Stasi conspiracy theorists, the truth is that the contents of the suspicious package posted by Connell in Prague that day had very little to do with a reactionary plot, or even the Štěchovice treasure, I’m afraid. It was a little camel coat she’d found that she thought would suit three-and-a-half year-old me. And it did. So thank you, Connell, wherever you are.
And thanks, Mum, because even though Dad threw away all your stuff when you died – including my birthright – from doing my research and talking to people I got a story out of it in the end. It’s called The Liberation of Vaclav Voracek and strictly speaking has nothing to do with Connell or that side of it, instead taking its inspiration from some of the other events of that day and how they might have impacted upon the poor Czech students involved in the production. Hopefully it will appear in my Animus collection sometime soon.
As for what was really in the package...
Last time I blogged about my mother and the severed head she kept in a box under her bed. This time I thought I'd focus on the typewriter my uncle took with him to meet the godfather of the modern Mafia.
It was 1960. Uncle John had been keeping busy, with a string of screenwriting successes under his belt that included a BAFTA nomination for Yield to the Night (retitled Blonde Sinner in the United States but here in Britain an important step in turning public opinion against the death penalty). Between jobs, he was approached by a Hollywood producer, Martin Gosch, to co-write a semi-fictionalised mafioso script that no American writer would touch. The first step would be to fly out to Naples and interview the 'historical consultant', one Charlie "Lucky" Luciano.
So John packed his trusty Olympia SM3 portable (this one here, in fact) and off he went. He met Luciano, said he was a very friendly if somewhat scary guy, and even worked with him on the script, presumably on this very machine. Until that is, by various accounts, the fellas back home decided that they didn't really need the extra publicity and instead made everyone involved in the project an offer they couldn't refuse. John came back to London to work on Spare the Rod with Max Bygraves and Gosch produced a book instead, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, in which he claimed the mobster had spilled the beans on his life story before dying in Gosch's arms at Naples airport - although one account has a furious Luciano raving 'Gosch is a f***ing lying son of a bitch and I'm getting him back to Naples to take care of him!'
All things considered, I'd say Uncle John - and his typewriter - got out at the right time. Perhaps that's why I keep it here, not just to remember him by but as a writing talisman. What's yours?
I don’t remember the presence of a valance, or even the existence of such things. If my immature apprehension gave a name to the veil that my fingers had suddenly grown so reluctant to lift, it would have been bedspread; counterpane perhaps.
No, what I remember is the box behind it, and how, as I prostrated myself against my better judgement and lowered my cheek almost to the dusty Axminster, it slid shadily, shakily into view. The shape of it. The picture on it. This picture.
What kind of mother keeps a head-sized box with a picture like that on it under her bed?
Because I’m sorry, I know René Gruau was a pretty influential fashion illustrator and the logo he designed for Dickins & Jones of Regent Street was fabulously stylish but come on, COME ON... Here I am, really little and left alone in the house (things were done differently in those days) and of course I’m going to goad myself into sneaking into her room and getting down for another, terrified peek. Because even I, at God knows what tender age, can tell it looks like a severed head on some cloth, not a rose – and who would tie a black ribbon on a rose anyway?
And did I mention the head-sized box?
I never found the courage to look in it, of course. In those early, different days it was enough to catch sight of it, and skip a breath or a heartbeat, and beat a hasty retreat. Later, the space under the bed would fill up with other stuff. Pads. Dad’s pictures. A tartan picnic basket filled with slides and Kodak wallets. Those strangely orthopaedic-looking boot stretchers. But even though I’d only happen on it now and then, by chance, still the box would be under there somewhere.
After she was gone, Dad threw it all away. I asked him what had been in the box.
Her wedding dress, he said.
When I set up this website I included a page that I called Works in Progress. However, since everything I discuss throughout the whole site could be described as unfinished in one way or another, what this somewhat misnamed page turned into was an interactive Title Survey for one particular work in progress: my proto-Cold War spy thriller novel set in the aftermath of the German surrender in 1945.
I had two possible titles for it, one of them reminiscent of the kind of Robert Ludlum/Desmond Bagley/Anthony Price books I grew up reading (and of the Modesty Blaise novels that have provided a sizeable chunk of its inspiration), the other less generic and more suggestive of hifalutin 'literary' aspirations. For the record, these were The Borodino Sacrifice and Chasing Mercury.
But as I've indicated on the Works in Progress page, this isn't just a case of alternative titles. The two options are tonally so different that they change the whole look and feel of the book. You could, for example, use a whimsical cover design for Chasing Mercury - although it would be a bit disingenuous for a novel that begins with a sniper watching a secret handover and ends with an Alamo-style shootout - but The Borodino Sacrifice (to mix game metaphors) needs to lay its cards on the table.
There's also the question - clumsily addressed but by no means insignificant - of appealing, in an ideal world, to both male and female readers. In crude terms, I have a pair of protagonists with a mix of male and female motivations. It would be nice if the look and feel were able to reflect this in some way.
The point of the blind survey was to get an impression of which version of the book people - whoever they might be - would be more likely to pick up or click on, and to that end I mocked-up a couple of very different covers.
And now the results are in... Or rather, having taken bloody ages to get the form entries up to double figures, I've decided to call it, for the time being. Chasing Mercury got twice the votes of The Borodino Sacrifice.
However, none of these respondees (and many thanks to all of you!) have read the book. Apart from the little bit of blurb/log-line above the survey, they didn't really know what they were voting on - it was always just an instinctive thing, a snapshot of changing tastes.
But I do know the book. I know how it ends. And I've made a decision based on that. You see, it doesn't end, not completely - it opens the way for a follow-up, possibly even a trilogy.
So yes, as you preferred: Chasing Mercury is the overall title. But with The Borodino Sacrifice as the subtitle for this first volume.
I feel another blog post coming on about the titling of novel sequences. Numbered books... Colons... Franchises... But I need to go away and think about that first.
In the meantime, thanks again for the input. The chase goes on!
In the haunting words of that sadly neglected, oft-rejected film score composer, Stanley Rogers: 'Don't be a pro-cras-tin-ator'.
But it's not as easy as that.
I'm not talking here about putting off the act of writing. (Cue the clickbait lists and quotes... Yeah, thanks a bundle.)
I'm talking about when you have typed THE END, and you are reasonably happy with this latest draft. But you have another project on the back-burner and this is the perfect time to start looking again at that. So you do, even though you kind of know what's going to happen - how you're going to leave the newly finished work a little too long before re-reading it, and spend a bit too much time in another mindset, hearing another voice come through, so it'll sound a little off again when you do.
Or, rather, when I do. It's me we're talking about here. My hang-ups. My pro-cras-tin-ation.
In the past year, this is how it has gone. 12-14 months ago I was getting demoralised pulling together the short story collection. Although I was still happy with the linking concept (which this week has proved more topical than ever, dammit), individual stories weren't performing as well as I'd hoped and I was talking myself into cutting more and more of them, so I called a timeout before the whole thing disappeared up its own Aristotle. Instead, I developed an idea that had been buzzing around, a longer-form story, which became my novella, 76. I was 80% happy with the early drafts of that, but there were (and still are) nagging concerns, things that need fixing and need some inspiration if that's going to happen. So while waiting for that I decided to use my time productively (ha, ha) by getting onto some revisions that I'd been putting off making to my novel Chasing Mercury / The Borodino Sacrifice...
And that went well. That's the point. I did another draft that cut out a ton of flab and fixed some clumsy head-hopping that I'd always known would need fixing. I was happy with it at last. Still am.
Only... now I'm straight back on the novella and its problems, because deep down I know that I can't wait for inspiration to arrive and I have to grind it out myself, somehow. But the more disturbing psychological conclusions we can draw from this are these: a) yes, I'm letting my fear of rejection stop me from taking the next step, Duh, and b) nowadays, I'm not even allowing myself a brief, shining moment of optimism and illusion - instead heading straight for the next mess, the next morass.
Whereas Stanley had it right all along. 'You've got to have your Apocalypse Now, don't leave it to later...'
Thought one. It's brutal. One minute you feel you're part of a project - a co-conspirator if not a contributor - and the next you're just another reject. Except it's not just another rejection because unlike most other kinds of submission, you can't take what you wrote and do something else with it. It was written for a purpose, to a brief, almost, and now it's what...? Fan fic, before the fact? (Perhaps, once the competition is finished and the book is out, the unchosen many should set up their own suburb: an unwanted, unsightly but unavoidable strip development beyond Shallow Creek's city limits.)
Thought two. Why does it hurt so much? Because it was thrilling while it lasted. Because it was fun, following the guidelines, poring over the map and the character sheets, trying to work within those boundaries without seeing them as limitations. And knowing that all the time there were all sorts of other people working towards the same goal, in different ways. It was like being in a writers' room - except with the other writers veiled and silent.
Thought three. How to take something positive from this. Bite your lip and buy the book. Learn what it was that the chosen few did better than you. And then, if you don't think they did, let it fester. Lurk the shadows of Shallow Creek forever!
So that was spooky. One moment I was trying to recreate the summer of '76 on the page, in my novella. The next I found I'd recreated it in the real world. I always thought 76 would summon up ghosts.
I got to a fairly advanced draft. My ideal reader was happy with it, my beta reader less so. (Don't use a loved one as a beta reader!) And so, with the river flowing ever more sluggishly, I decided to stop beating against the current (and mixing my metaphors) and turned downstream - to Shallow Creek.
Shallow Creek is STORGY Magazine's latest, excitingly interactive, short story competition. You pay your dues and receive a visitor pack consisting of a character profile, a location, an item of interest and a map, all of which must inspire your story in some way. Last I heard there were more than 130 writers exploring this thoroughly hair-raising if as yet still somewhat imaginary locale - at least so says Mallum Colt (@ColtMallum ), proprietor of Colt's Curiosity Corner and self-confessed trader of the ancient and arcane.
The deadline is 31st August. Must get down to the Police building. Got to look out for a certain clown.
Not a rhetorical question. I don't know. I want to find out.
After the first draft of this novella (actually more like the second) I had the structure pinned down. I had a title (different from what I'd first imagined). Heck, I even had a tag line I liked - and a mocked-up cover to see if it worked (just nod - it's something I feel I need to do).
Can you read that? If not, the tag line says:
A summer that would never end...
...or a world that was about to?
But a tag line, as we're always told, is not a log line. A tag line is a marketing tool, a hook, designed to build intrigue.
A log line is meant to be more like a one-sentence movie pitch. But also a functional summary of the plot: who's it about, what do they want, what stands in their way? But also intriguing, so people actually want to find out...
So my first thought, obviously, was: 'Sh*t! Could I even write a log line for this overambitious, under-planned mess?'
And my next was the one that appears in the headline here. If I can, can it help me? (Because I need help!)
So far I'd say it's certainly a useful exercise. It has helped me focus on the basics, like who are the protagonists/antagonists, what are the stakes, and do I need to explain the setup up-front.
But will it help with draft two (more like three)? The jury is still out on that. Maybe I need to get better at writing log lines before I use them to get better at writing anything else. And with that in mind, for the record, here are some of my attempts. If you can spare an extra few seconds, please let me know which one might persuade you to read the book (if any). As ever, I don't get to see who voted, only which option received the most votes.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.