My short story Dear Gestapo won first prize of £300 in the Writers’ Forum magazine short story competition and was published in October 2012. Head judge Sue Moorcroft said:
The mastery of our winning story lies in the myriad tiny details of both plot and period.
There’s a story behind the story. In the Occupation Museum on the island of Jersey I saw a letter. It was written by an anonymous Jersey resident in 1942 and addressed to the German authorities. It accused a named person of possessing a clandestine wireless set for listening to the BBC.
Well. That says something about the human condition. The willingness – no, enthusiasm – of someone to denounce their neighbour to a monstrous regime was depressing. But the letter began with the bizarre salutation Dear Gestapo. The ‘banality of evil’ is a well-worn phrase, but here was banality and evil condensed into two words in a neat cursive script. (I’m no graphologist, but it looked like a woman’s handwriting.)
I considered it incredible that someone would begin a letter with Dear Gestapo. Nobody would believe it. I finished the story with an authors note explaining that the story was based on real events – I had seen the actual document myself, and it was available for inspection at the museum on Jersey.
It was at this point I started to realise that I was worrying too much about stretching credibility in a story. Real life stretches credibility way more than writers do. Unless you’re Dan Brown, anyway.
The Finnish language has two words for death. First there’s kuolema which is what happened when my father died in his sleep at the age of eighty-nine. And then there’s surma which is altogether different. Surma is the kind of death the police are interested in.
Wild concerns a Finnish-Canadian hunting guide who takes on a new client, Dan. Dan wants to go moose hunting in a remote wilderness – the ‘back of the back country’ – but insists that no modern communication tools go with them.
The fly-in took two hours. I guess when deHavilland designed the Beaver floatplane they weren’t too particular about cruising speed. It only had to be faster than a dog sled.
Of course, when they get there it quickly becomes apparent that whatever Dan is looking for, it sure ain’t moose.
I had originally intended that Dan’s real quest would be to hunt the most dangerous animal possible – namely, another armed man. But that is a distinctly tired theme, and Gavin Lyall had already nailed it in his excellent 1960s thriller The Most Dangerous Game. Quite a few other writers have done it less artfully, both before and since.
So I came up with an alternative plot, drawing on my experience of working in liaison psychiatry – a branch of medicine where you see some very strange things indeed.
It worked out – a completely fresh idea is better than a fresh take on an old idea. Wild hit the number one slot on the peer review site Youwriteon, so I won a professional critique from Alison at Random House. She said:
A fascinating, dark short story. I really liked your opening paragraphs – they were attention grabbing and intriguing, and really drew me into the writing. I also liked how the mobile phone functioned as a very successful red herring. The way the trip fell apart so quickly felt very convincing; there was a real, raw energy in the narrative as it dragged us forward to the terrible conclusion.
I’m fairly hopeful she meant the conclusion contained terrible events.
I submitted this one to the prestigious Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in the USA – if my memory serves me right Ian Rankin and Stephen King have appeared in EQMM. They didn’t buy it, but along with the rejection they invited me to send future work to them. That’s the kind of rejection I don’t mind having.
I’m currently submitting this story elsewhere.
Lieutenant Peter Mann* is back from Afghanistan. Or, at least, most of him is. Not all of his limbs came back with him.
He spends his war injury compensation on an old cottage, only to find a trapdoor under the carpet. And underneath the trap door…
There was a huge iron door with a tarnished brass escutcheon and two keyholes. The black japanned surface was worn at the edges, but it still had an intimidating Victorian solidity. It looked like the back door to Hell.
I wiped the dust from the brass plate and discovered that I was the proud owner of a ‘Milners of London and Liverpool Improved Thief Resistant and Strong Hold Fast Safe.’ I tugged on the door.
It was locked.
Well, what would you do if you bought a house and found it came with a locked safe?
This story also hit the Youwriteon top ten, and I won a professional critique from Natalie Braine, one of the editors at Orion. I subsequently entered it into a competition run by Mardibooks, and it was published in their The Clock Struck War anthology. It’s still available to buy on Amazon here. The reviews were very favourable.
Mardibooks were good to deal with. I signed their contract and subsequently received a royalty cheque.
The idea came from an internet forum – a member had found a locked safe in his newly-purchased house and was seeking advice on how to open it. Various suggestions from the sensible† to the suicidal‡ were made (that’s the internet for you) and it turned into a saga that Homer would have been proud of. Eventually the member reported that he hoped to get a locksmith in. Then there were delays finding the right locksmith – opening a safe without the key is, of course, an intentionally difficult process.
At last the original poster reported complete success… and simply thanked the forum for their help. That’s when things went slightly crazy with everybody asking the obvious question, and folk getting more and more desperate to know when the answer was not immediately forthcoming.
I discovered how to write suspense that day.
*’Peterman’ is archaic underworld slang for a safe-cracker. I like to give my protagonists names that have significance, though I suspect few readers actually notice. Ian Rankin took the same approach with his Inspector Rebus – a rebus being a type of puzzle or riddle.
† Call a locksmith.
‡ The ‘methode traditionelle’ for blowing a safe is with a condom down the hinge, filled with liquid nitro-glycerine. Don’t try this at home.
There’s plenty of fiction about stalkers (as in deluded obsessive admirers), but not so much about stalkers (as in professional deer hunters). They are also interesting people to study.
I’ve spent time on the hill with these folk and certain things stuck me. They are observant and they invariably notice deer, or a fox, or whatever before I do. They know where to put their feet – when you are up to your thighs in marmite-viscosity peat, they float gracefully over the heather. Mostly they do not have university education, but still seem to know rather a lot about ecology.
In Eton Rifle, McGregor is the head stalker on a highland estate. He has two passions in his life – the land under his care, and Mhairi, the receptionist at the nearby hotel.
Curtis, an Eton-educated businessman, is McGregors ‘rifle’ – which is the term used for a paying guest on a stalk.
Curtis has narcissistic personality disorder, and everything that goes along with it – the sense of entitlement, the inability to tolerate criticism, the lack of insight. The American ecologist Aldo Leopold had this sort of character in mind when he said: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?””
Writing is like chemistry. You take two highly reactive substances, like sodium and water, or McGregor and Curtis, and toss them into a sealed container. There’s no work involved after that. You simply describe the resulting explosion.
Wild country is a particularly useful crucible for these pyrotechnics. The characters cannot escape from one another.
Eton Rifle was another Youwriteon top ten winner, and I received a professional critique from Natalie at Orion.
King’s Gambit Declined
In 2016 I scooped first prize (a thousand quid!) in the To Hull and Back writing competition.
I like this competition, and not just because I won it. The competition is run by Christopher Fielden, who has an excellent website for writers. Judging is by a panel of judges, which I guess makes it fairer.
The anthology of winning and short-listed stories is available here.
And yes, that is my moniker on the front cover.
I won first prize of £300 in the February 2017 issue of Writers’ Forum magazine. This was the second time I’ve won the top prize in this competition.
Arlequin is set in occupied France in the Second World War. Carlin, a wireless operator with the Special Operations Executive, meets his courier, Arlequin, in a café. He soon realises that she is shattered, demoralised and perhaps not to be trusted.
The story explores the twin themes of burnout and betrayal. The resilience of the men and women of the SOE and the Resistance is astonishing. Working alone and a mere heartbeat away from arrest and torture, it is surprising how few became psychiatric casualties of war.
I’m really pleased with this story because I think it is about the best thing I’ve written. The head judge liked it too:
This moving story stayed with me long after I’d finished reading it.