Sunday, 4 November 2018

Learning lessons from the past

I’m midway through Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. 

First published in 1934 it’s been reissued under the British Library Crime Classics imprint and is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a throwback to a time when women wore hats, crimes were solved by trusty policemen and you could afford to live in Fitzrovia on a part time journalist’s salary.

I’ve read quite a few of these books now – it all started for me with Crimson Snow, a series of Christmas crime stories which are a great festive read – and I’ve loved every single one of them. From a reader’s perspective they’re great stories -  rollicking plots, cracking pace and wonderful characters from a bygone age. And they've got covers to die for... 

However, there’s a lot to learn from them for writers too. They are patient, they luxuriate in language and they are beautifully plotted. I know plotting can be me weakness when it comes to writing. Reading crime stories, and particularly these books from a softer more gentle time, helps me appreciate the rigor of a well plotted tale when shock tactics and technology can’t get you out of a hole!

These stories can’t rely on mobile phones; security cameras don’t solve anything and the library is the only research tool at hand. They are lo-fi stories that require nimble footwork form the author in order to succeed. They’re a joy to read and study.

They’re also particularly useful for a modern children’s writer. At the time they were written they were tales to chill and intrigue, but to a modern audience they are very tame. You would read worse violence and language in a contemporary YA novel. Reading these stories you learn what you can achieve through language and suggestion alone.  You also learn what you don’t need – gore, bloody violence and extremes are not needed if the tale and characters are captivating.

In terms of language and tone, some could be modern children’s books.  I’m not saying that we should all be writing in this way – far from it! However, it can be useful to read adult stories from a more conservative era to see how they got away with things!

As a children’s writer I know there are limits to what I can say or do in my work. These writers had similar constraints by dint of the social expectations they had to adhere to at the time they were writing. They worked hard as writers to dance through those constraints. It can be useful to be shown some of the moves!

1 comment:

Anne Booth said...

I think this was a great post - thank you.