The Hand of Kane (revisited)

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Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

I re-read my 2017 posts last night and really enjoyed this short mystery story that I wrote for Goodread’s #MysteryWeek in May; the idea is to write a short mystery story in no more than five sentences.

Okay, so I pushed the five-sentence rule to the absolute limits of credulity-twelve hundred words! – so I’ve edited the story to more reasonable sentence lengths while minimising any changes to the structure or flow of the story.

It’s a short revenge story set in the land of my childhood; our last home in Northern Ireland overlooked the outer dock and the shores of Belfast Lough.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the granite skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road. The forensic team was clearing out, and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra.

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle…”

The young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag. One glimpse of the dead man’s right hand had been enough, sloughed off skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones. The rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple.

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, a cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard around his neck.” He waved his hand along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder down the road on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied.

“Surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit. Come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port of Belfast authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was looming, waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan.

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water. The body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties.

The trajectory was clear to all who saw his broken body; he’d leaped from the ferry, but not the one currently docked; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, Swanson wondered, dragging his fat, inexorable finger down the printed ferry timetable he was handed by the port supervisor. The previous ferry had docked just before seven this morning.

There was some connection between these two deaths, he mulled, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust. He suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car.

But it was the body by the ferry that held the key to the double deaths, and it told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, was an exile from Norn Iron for forty years.

The appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out, and the door to door plods working the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise.

Jimmy Kane never moved from his birthplace, reveling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, blurted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs?”*

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson. “My theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, none the wiser:

  • Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
  • Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
  • Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves found on deceased, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
  • A pocket bible, Old and New Testament
  • Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph, various dates; the oldest one covering the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and an article on the history and myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster.

Shakily underlined in felt tip pen on the third sheet of paper, worn smooth from being handled and folded many times, was the following passage:

Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown. One contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.


* Author’s note – “flegs” is how the people of Belfast pronounce the word ‘flag’, but is also used in discussions to encapsulate the opposing loyalist and republican viewpoints of the topic of flags, and when and where they are erected in Northern Ireland, a hotly debated topic that has erupted into violence in the past.

Link to the story on Goodreads

Guess Who’s Back…News Roundup

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted, even though in the interim I’ve had a couple of flash fiction stories published; my non-writing life got in the way, and family comes first.

I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year’s, constant reader; a gift I inadvertently gave myself for 2018 was some distance on my two novels-in-progress; going back over both drafts this week, I appreciate the chance to look at my work with fresh, critical eyes. I’ve got a couple of word games on my phone, and I often get stuck on a stage – closing the game and leaving it a day invariably helps me find that impossible word and progress a level! It’s the same thing with my writing.

And although I haven’t been actively working on my drafts, I’ve been mulling over some plot and thematic issues, and reading, reading, reading! A Christmas and New Year movie-marathon also threw up some good ideas, as did a couple of crazy Youtube videos! It’s all grist to this word miller.

If you get a chance please head on over to 101fiction.com and reflexfiction.com where you’ll always find great new flash fiction; I was pleased to make their Summer 2017 long list of 50, from 320+ entries, for the latter.

I wish you all a happy, productive and creative New Year!

June Roundup: flash fiction published and revisiting the draft of my first novel: it does get better!

Felixstowe beach
Felixstowe Beach

May and June have been busy, momentous even, and I’ve struggled to find time to write and update the blog. I did, however, snatch the time for a quick trip to the seaside; we are pretty much in the centre of the landmass of England, and the coast is a long drive in every direction, but we managed to get over to Felixstowe on the East coast during that blink-and-you-missed-it heat wave we had a few weekends ago.

I’ve also had a couple of pieces of flash fiction published recently; Uncle Clifford at Fifty Word Stories and Conditional at 101 Fiction. As usual, both are inspired by real life events, although “Conditional” has a nasty whiff of wish-fulfilment!  If you have the time, please grab a moment to visit these great flash fiction sites; I’m often inspired by the quality of the stories they feature.

I’ve also taken time, now a couple of months have gone by since its publication, to revisit The Battle of Watling Street, specifically to review how it reads to me, four or five months after I completed the last edits. I’m pleased with the result; the text is nice and tight, and I haven’t found any glaring historical anachronisms! I enjoy the characters and their voices, and I might be tempted to catch up with Dedo and Cata and follow their adventures after their escape from the destruction of Boudicca’s forces.

I’m currently working on the modern-day sequel to  Street, but emboldened, I revisited my first novel-in-progress, And The Buntings Flew which is around 50% through; I’ve parked it for now so I can finish my Sci-Fi novella, but it means the most to me, and I wanted to have a read through to refresh my memory ready for me picking it up again towards the autumn.

It was a revelation – the story is still great, the characters and descriptions still grip, but I was so long-winded in writing the action and “doing” scenes; just moving characters around in their world would take pages, and it made a really tense story with high stakes drag at times.

Anecdote time; when I was first asked to take minutes in a meeting, many years ago, I captured pretty much every word uttered, and turned in a whopping ten-pager instead of the usual one or two sides of notes and actions – the writing in my draft for Buntings, particularly where characters are acting, going about their business and driving the plot, has similar style faults. My writing inexperience shines through.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the experience of completing my first novella really helped in tightening up dialogue, action scenes and just getting characters from A to B, and the whole process has come under some scrutiny from beta readers for Watling Street, and the results are there to be read. I’m writing more tightly, and coming to the point – my words have lost their flab and have muscle, exactly the result you expect from training and lots of practice. The good news is that I can sweep through the slow sections in “Buntings” and trim them considerably with relatively little pain; the total word count will take a hit though!

Have you had a similar experience when revisiting your earlier writing, maybe an unfinished draft you’ve picked up again recently?

Successful Historical Fiction – Interview with M.K.Tod

The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless”

At her historical fiction blog, A Writer of History, author and blogger M.K.Tod (Mary) recently posed a series of questions to readers, and bloggers on the subject of what constitutes successful historical fiction.

The questions posed by Mary were:

  • What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
  • What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
  • Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
  • What makes these particular authors stand out?
  • In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
  • Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
  • Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
  • What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
  • In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
  • Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

I took up the challenge, and you can read my interview here.

If historical fiction is your thing, it’s fascinating to read the other responses to Mary’s questions, from a range of historical fiction authors. Such a seemingly simple question as “How do you define historical fiction?” is so difficult to pin down; my answer boils down to, “it depends!”

Mary has promised to pull together some insights from her series of interviews, which I look forward to reading and will post a link to here.

#MysteryWeek on Goodreads – My Five Sentence Original Mystery

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Port of Belfast with Cave Hill in the distance

It’s nearly May, and as well as hopes for warmer (or at least consistent) weather, my thoughts have turned to murder mysteries and crime; May 1st – 7th is Mystery Week on Goodreads, and I’m taking part this year!

Goodreads have organised a raft of activities for mystery writers and readers between the 1st and 7th of May; use hashtag #MysteryWeek to search for new stories on social media, including the five sentence mystery feature;  below is my offering, which you can also find listed on my Goodreads writing page; I’ve also answered an Ask the Author question on Goodreads that specifically relates to #Mystery week; links to all of these below the story!

In my five (very long) sentence story, my mind took fancy with the revenge motif, but some of the incidents in this story are based on a real life tragedy and also figure in my upcoming novel And the Buntings Flew, which constant readers will know is set in 1970’s Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.

***

THE HAND OF KANE

Barbs of rain flayed the skin from Napoleon’s Nose and lashed down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road, where the forensic team had finished off and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra:

“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle” – the young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag; one glimpse of the dead man’s right hand was enough, sloughed of skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones, while the rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple;

“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard round his neck”; he waved his arm along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.

“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied; “surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit – come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”

The port authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan:

“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water – the body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties, the trajectory was clear to all who saw his body; he’d leapt from the ferry, but not the one currently in dock; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, since the last ferry had docked – there was some connection between these two deaths, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.

Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust; he had suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car, but it was the body by the ferry that told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, and an exile from Norn Iron for forty years; the appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out; door to door in the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise; Jimmy never moved from his birthplace, revelling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now, when he had his own death sentence –

“But Sarge”, interrupted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs…” –

“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson, “my theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”

He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, still none the wiser:

Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
A pocket bible
Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph; the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and a historical article on the myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster; shakily underlined in red felt tip was the following passage – “Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown – one contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.”

Twitter #MysteryWeek

Goodreads Ask The Author Mystery Week Question – Margaret McGoverne

Link to the story on Goodreads

Photo Inspiration for “The Bondage of The Soil”

“Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” – George Orwell

(All photos © Margaret McGoverne 2017)

So, dear reader, I’ve published my very first work of fiction  and the truth of the Orwell quote above has hit me hard. Writing the story is only the first step; I’m busy with guest posts, building up reviews, and wooing local newspapers to bestow a couple of columns on my book.

thincovertbows5It’s a bit like having children; having brought my first book baby into the world, I now have to contend with gestating and giving birth to another one while the firstborn is still a very demanding toddler!

On the plus side, I have renewed vigour for my current work in progress; I suspect this is because, after endless rereads and edits and Kindle uploads and proofing, I’m thoroughly sick of The Battle of Watling Street!

The Bondage of The Soil is the modern-day Sci-Fi sequel to The Battle of Watling Street (which was set in 1st century AD Roman Britain) , although it was the first in terms of the idea coming to me. The inspiration was a lonely detour on my way home from  work, excavations for a new motorway junction, a steep hill, lots of local Roman and Celtic history and a very old, lonely church. So as a taster, here’s some pictures and the Google street view from the road (I couldn’t get a shot of the creepy pollarded trees that edge the church as there’s nowhere to park on the country lane.)

I hope to finish the first draft by the autumn; I’m excited by this one, it’s my first full length novel, and I feel I learned lots from The Battle of Watling Street, even though it’s a less than 20K words novella.

(If you’d like to read the first two chapters of The Battle of Watling Street for free, you can subscribe to email updates, or I’d be happy to arrange a free PDF copy for a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads)

Lessons In Kindle – Twelve Things I Learned When Publishing My Book on Amazon

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My first published novella, on Kindle

I recently published my first work of fiction, an Alternate history/Sci-Fi novella, The Battle of Watling Street, using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

This may turn into a short series of posts, but for now I want to limit the discussion to the technical/formatting challenges and benefits I discovered with KDP. Hopefully this will help someone, somewhere with their own self-publishing journey!

The advice in this post could be summarised by the 5 Ps of preparation: proper planning prevents poor performance. Here are 12 specific ways in which you can prepare, and make the process as painless and productive as possible.

  • 1.There are KDP resources and guides to help with uploads, formatting requirements etc – do read these before you start. There are some important things to note about which format to upload your book, as each type has its own requirements and limitations. For example…
  • 2. If you are uploading to Kindle (eBook as opposed to print version), you will need to set up styles in your document for chapter/section headers, and also to create and format a table of contents that will work in your Kindle book. Be warned, if like me you had to juggle between two different word processors to get all the required formatting (I have Word Starter and Kingsoft WPS Writer at present), things can change between formats, especially font type and size. I encountered an issue where some paragraphs changed font and size, and I had to manually change them all back. Check your uploaded file carefully for any font discrepancies!
  •  3. Page Numbers – for Kindle eBook uploads, which are ideally uploaded in a Doc. or HTML (filtered) format, you need to remove page numbers from your book, and from the table of contents, as Kindle will format your pages differently. Don’t do what I did initially, which was to then save that file as a PDF for my printed book upload. The first few copies of my paperback were sold without page numbers, much to my embarrassment.
  • 4. Page breaks: If you are uploading a Filtered HTML document, you need to insert an extra page break at the end of each chapter or section, to prevent the pages running on together in the Kindle version.I did this while the file was still in DOC format as it’s easier to confirm it has created the breaks.
  • 5. Zipped Files: for your Kindle format, if you have any images in your document, you need to create a zipped file that contains both the document and any images. When you save a Word document as filtered HTML, it should create a folder; drop your images in here. If not you can manually zip your files together. If you don’t do this, images will be missing from your eBook.
  • 6. KDP offers a paperback print option for your book but you have to format your document (I used PDF) to fit one of the default paper sizes, usually 6 x 9 inches. My Word document was 8 x 11 but it’s quite easy to change; go to Page Layout/Size and select from there. (NB, sizes on Word are displayed in cm. There is also a custom size option at the bottom of the page, which is what I used.)
  • 7. Viewing and approving your document: as part of the upload process, you are prompted to review your uploaded document and cover image, and approve them for publication. The online reviewer is long and a bit cumbersome and requires a screen with minimum resolution of 600 x 1200 (I had to move from my laptop to my desktop to see the “Approve” button) but it’s essential to getting the formatting right. You are looking to check that there are no errors (red crosses) as these will prevent you approving the document. You can approve a document if the errors are only warnings (yellow triangles). Check that page breaks etc are in the right place, images have come through correctly, table of contents and tables/tabbed paragraphs display correctly.You may also be prompted to check that page numbers are within margins, and that your cover image is of high enough resolution.
  • 8. Your Blurb: you’ve been messing about with document formats, zip files and cover images, but have you prepared your book blurb? Your blurb is the (semi) short description of your book, and it’s your chance to shine: don’t write it on the fly, have it ready. I searched Amazon for the top 10 books in the categories I was planning to list my book in (Historical fiction/Sci-Fi/Mysteries) and I looked at what caught my eye and made me want to read a book. I came up  with a short paragraph that summarised the premise, but also a few short and choppy sentences, each headed by a teasing title. I also did a quick author bio, for readers who didn’t click through to my author page. Here’s what my blurb looks like:
    blurb
  • 9. The waiting game: when you’ve finally approved and uploaded your files, set your royalty rates and done everything else needful, be prepared for a wait. Your KDP Bookshelf will show you progress, from “Live – In review”, through to “Live”. This can take a while; the paperback version took about 4 hours for me, the eBook was the better part of 8 hours initially. Edits and updates are a little quicker once your files have been initially uploaded.
  • 10. Once your books are published, you should head on over to the Amazon Author Page (here’s my UK author page) and fill it full of interesting information about the newly published author. But be aware, this Amazon Author page isn’t universal; you will have to create a separate one for the UK, US, India, Australia etc. So far I’ve set the UK and US pages up as I think these will be my primary markets, although I will complete duplicate pages for commonwealth countries. The US page in particular has some additional nice features such as a unique author URL; do use these!
  • 11. Giveaways and promotions: if you want to feature your newly published book in a free or reduced price giveaway, you will have to enrol in Amazon’s KDP Select programme; this isn’t currently an option on KDP. I haven’t yet enrolled in KDP Select as I need to read up on the pros and cons; while your book is featured in KDP Select, it must be published exclusively with Amazon, although it can be marketed elsewhere in print format.
  • 12. Your book on other platforms: so you’ve uploaded your book, it’s live on Amazon, and you have a nifty new author page (or two). Now you’re keen to head on over to Goodreads, Bookbub etc and set your author page up, offer your book as a giveaway etc. Be warned, it takes a few days (a week for me) for your book to show up on their search pages after being uploaded to Amazon, so be patient.

I hope these pointers help you in your self-publishing journey; if you have any more or have had a different experience with Kindle DP, please let me know in the comments!