The Art of Conversation

Nighthawks  by Edward Hopper (1942), The Art Institute of Chicago. Source:  Wikipedia

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942), The Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikipedia

I like old movies (no, not 80s movies). I like them because they were filmed in an age where words mattered more than special effects. The characters were a part of the plot, not vehicles for it, and their chemistry mattered. This is one of my favourite scenes from To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks):

This is what I get out of this scene. First, the tone is set early – it’s playful, although they’re talking about something serious. There’s a tension between them, but these two play their cards close to their chest. There’s conflict here, but not a full-blown argument. They cut each other off, they get caught lying, theyflirt. And, most importantly, what they say matters even if it doesn’t appear to be the case.

Here is another favourite scene from the same film:

This is pure conflict right from the start, but he keeps his cool. He starts to roll up his sleeves. He doesn’t care if she’s upset. He’s there for a reason. We start to get the sense that he knows what he’s doing but there’s no big speech about his past or experience. She is standing firm: it’s stupid, we all know it – she’s being silly. He’s cold, direct, but we know he cares – it’s just not his way to show compassion through his words – he does it through his actions. Then it’s all business. She’s stubborn. He gives her something to do – he’s taking the lead and everyone lets him – he has confidence. Notice the stretches of silence – they’re only brief but nobody fills them with pointless words. Finally, my favourite bit:

Slim: What are you trying to do, guess her weight?
Steve: She’s heftier than you think. *Pause* Better loosen her clothes.
Slim: You’ve been doing all right.
He sits down to loosen the woman’s collar.
Slim: Uh, maybe you better look after her husband.

This bit conveys her jealousy but does so with subtlety. The line about loosening clothes is awesome. He obviously has no designs on the wife and is all business. Still, Slim can’t stand to see it.

I learned a lot about writing dialogue from watching films like this. Getting the dialogue right is a big deal – bad dialogue is very obvious. Common mistakes include:

  • Making a character say something that people just don't say.
  • Making a bad guy talk like a villain from a James Bond movie; "Your actions are foolish and futile" or "The blueprints are essential to the success of my evil plan." Nobody has an evil laugh and nobody really spins in their chair to say "So, we meet at last". 
  • Making a character spew a page of dialogue to explain the plot to a reader.
  • Making characters say what they think/feel - nobody ever really does that
  • And, one of my favourites, making the protagonist's love interest spend a page rationalising why she's going to hang around despite having just watched him brutally murder a bunch of people. 

I could go on. I won't. There are lists on the internet full of advice. Some of it is pretty good. My point is that something weird happens when we start to write what people say - we tend to mess it up. So, what about how people talk in real life? Sit in a cafe, and you may observe the following:

  • Most of what people say is confusing. As in, a casual eavesdropper will probably have no idea what they're talking about.
  • Most of what people say probably never needed to be said in the first place.
  • People like to laugh.
  • Not all of us are very funny.
  • People don't really use big words.
  • People struggle to find the right words, particularly when trying to say something important.
  • People sometimes try to avoid saying important things altogether.
  • People use a lot of fillers in conversation: 'like', 'um', 'ah', and I believe 'fuck' in its various forms fits this category too.
  • People exaggerate.

Again, I could go on. Again, I won't. I will, however, tell you how I get around some of these issues when writing dialogue. First, I try to make good characters with unique personalities, interests, and motives. Then, I throw them into a story. Finally, I write what they say as they try to keep out of trouble.

That's it. Easy, right?

Some things to remember:

  • If you've created good characters, they'll develop a voice of their own.
  • Criminals talk like criminals. Cops talk like cops. Everyone else talks like everyone else. In a lot of ways, people have the same vernacular and verbal tics, but your solicitor probably doesn't talk like a mechanic.
  • Some people swear. A lot.
  • Characters are allowed to say one thing and then do another.
  • People sometimes reveal themselves through their actions rather than their words - characters can do the same.
  • If you plan on putting in some witty banter, keep the tone of the dialogue casual throughout the whole story. It's easier to step up to a formal tone than it is to step down - the joke will just jar and seem disingenuous.
  • This is a personal one, but never make a character say 'I love you' if that's what you're trying to express. I only use this line if I want the words to seem empty and pointless. This is one of those 'show don't tell' things.
  • Conflict sustains stories, particularly thrillers. This doesn't mean arguing or fist fights. A back and forth sustains dialogue and keeps it interesting.
  • Here's the hardest one: two characters may be so close as to have their own personal language. That is, certain words have a particular significance to them that isn't shared with anybody else. This means that simple words said in a particular way may be completely earth-shattering. It may also mean that some things are left unsaid. Letting the reader in on this is really hard to do well.

Unfortunately, this isn't a comprehensive list. This is just what I've been able to come up with in the last couple of weeks.

The most important thing to remember is that writing takes practice. Writing dialogue takes practice too. Writing dialogue well starts with watching Bogart and Bacall.

P.S. Astute readers who have finished my book may notice that nicknames used in To Have and Have Not have a particular significance. Now you know.




The Thriller

Take a look at Figure 1. It’s fruit in a bowl. A bowl of fruit, if you will. What does it make you think? Feel? I’ll answer first to break the ice. My answer is: nothing, really. It’s fruit. It does what it says on the tin (if you’ll excuse the phrase). It’s nothing more or less than what I’d expect.

Fruit bowl  by 'Yosarian' (2009). Source:  Wikipedia

Fruit bowl by 'Yosarian' (2009). Source: Wikipedia

There’s nothing wrong with the bowl of fruit. Nothing at all. But...

Still life  by Alexander Coosemans (c. 1650), Queensland Art Gallery. Source:  Wikipedia

Still life by Alexander Coosemans (c. 1650), Queensland Art Gallery. Source: Wikipedia

Take a look at Figure 2. This is Still life (c. 1650) by Alexander Coosemans. I still remember the first time I saw this painting. I still go back to look at it every time I’m in Brisbane. Not only is it fruit, it’s the most beautiful bloody fruit you’ll ever see. And it made me wonder: why paint it? Why go to all the trouble? The answer apparently has to do with the historical period. At the time, having this kind of fruit, this variety, was only possible if you were wealthy and influential. This is the kind of painting you hung to impress people (you can read more here). This got me thinking about Plato and his discomfort with art and how it can be misused. This made me revisit another book... well, anyway. My point is that Coosemans achieves much more with his fruit.

Figure 1 is a thriller novel. Figure 2 is the thriller novel I’m going to spend my lifetime trying to write for you. Here’s the catch: Figure 2 promises much more than Figure 1, which means it gets judged more harshly if it fails to deliver. Also, some people prefer Figure 1 – they know what they’re getting. Therefore, Figure 2 entails a bit more risk for both of us.

I’ve spent a long time (about fifteen years) trying to come up with a way to write a Figure 2 Thriller. So far, on this blog, I’ve written about the different things that I mixed together to make some characters, using stuff from old poems and plays, myths and legends.

Some of you may be wondering why I went to all this trouble to create characters. So...

Back in 2010, I was still a reader and only reluctantly called myself an aspiring writer. I’d had a crack at writing a thriller novel and it failed horribly, getting rejected twice in 2008. At this time, I was figuring out what was missing, what I needed to do, and what I was trying to say.

Then I saw this on the television. I recommend watching the whole thing if you get a chance, particularly if you want to write thrillers. There’s some great advice in there. But it was this from Lee Child that got my attention back in 2010:

LEE CHILD: Well, who wouldn't [do what I do]? I mean, come on. If you were a literary author starving in a garret and you had the choice to turn out a Bryce Courtenay and make yourself a multi-millionaire so your family was looked after forever, why wouldn't you do that? If you could do that. Of course you would.

He makes it sound easy, right? From memory, this ignited a controversy (not a nation-wide scandal or anything – just a bit of a verbal stoush online). I can’t honestly say it put my nose out of joint. However, the bit that stuck in my mind (other than using a word that belongs in the nineteenth century) was Child’s rhetorical question: “Why wouldn’t you write like me?”

My mind came back with a question that got louder as No Free Man took shape: “Okay, but why shouldn’t I do it better?”

After all, shouldn’t we always strive to advance the genre? Explore, do new things, push boundaries – aim for improvement?

I like Lee Child books. I think Jack Reacher is pretty cool. Likewise, I like Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow, and Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, and Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, and I’m really getting into David Baldacci’s Will Robie. I get a kick out of these thrillers. But every time I finish one of these books, I can’t help but feel that something could be done to shake up the game a little.

Maybe I’m crazy. Perhaps these stories are the way they are because they’re as good as they get – they certainly seem to do well. Still, I wondered, and started to believe that I should try to do better. Anything less would haunt me.

Think of it this way: I’ve written a book. It’s a thriller. You like thrillers. You buy the book. I’m immediately in your debt. You have no idea what your money is going to get you. Will you like it? Will you hate it? Is it worth your money? Is it worth your time? Will it entertain you, make you think, challenge you? Will it take you on a white-knuckle ride? Will it introduce you to characters that are interesting, that you care about, that show you the world from a different perspective? Will it make you laugh, make you choke up, excite you? Will you pump the air with your fist when the character you like wins?

You don’t know, not until you buy it, read it, and finish it. By then, it’s a little late.

Fortunately, I’ve been down this road before.

I’m a mechanic. I fix things inside aeroplanes. By the time the pilot gets into the plane, the thing I’ve fixed is back in its proper place and usually hidden from view. The pilot trusts me. The pilot trusts that I’ve done my job properly. The pilot doesn’t know all the stuff I’ve had to learn over the years to be competent at what I do, and there are lots of little pieces of knowledge that go into every job. If I make a mistake – well, by the time the pilot finds out, it’ll be too late. This is a big deal, and one I take very seriously. When everything goes well, however, the pilot shouldn’t even have to think about this. It’s my problem, my responsibility. The pilot gets to go flying, chuck some loops, do a barrel-roll or two, go really fast, make some noise, and return to base exhilarated. The most I get is a thumbs up and a smile. That’s enough for me.

You, the reader, are that pilot. I, the writer, am still that mechanic. You’re the one that gets to go for the ride. I’m obligated to do everything I can to make that ride happen, and make it the coolest ride possible. This blog gives you the opportunity to look over my shoulder and see what I’m doing to put the plane together (or, as has been the case so far, my characters).

So, I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to write a decent thriller. I picked up a lot from Child, Reilly, Silva, Flynn and Baldacci. But then I read wider. I learned other things about writing stories from Gilgamesh, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, Poe, Doyle, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dickens, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wilde, and more. Some of these stories lasted for centuries because every generation finds something that resonates – we connect, we understand, we see ourselves. Plus, they’re full of adventure and humour and sex and scandal and violence – which are all the things that make a thriller tick.

Paradoxically, I’ve found that old ideas allow me to break established formulas and do something new. It’s kind of like going back to basics. It’s amazing how you can add a twist to something old and make it fresh. Check out this version of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) from Dorothee Golz. And these new versions (link deactivated by me: my antivirus software doesn't like this site, so I'm not going to send you there) of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Heinrich (1818) from Debbie Ding.

And if you go back to the old tales, you’ll see that there are no heroes – there are only people. Some of them fight and win, some fail, all are flawed (even the gods), and none of them are boring. My advice to aspiring thriller writers: don’t make your protagonist a hero. A writer cannot create a hero – only the character can do that. Your story just gives them their chance.

I believe thrillers can be done better. I believe I owe it to you to try to write a better thriller. I’m going to use this blog to show you what I’ve done and what I’m going to do (still to come: dialogue, plotting, action, setting). I don’t know if I’ll be the writer that nails it, but I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.

After all that (and the last couple of months), you may be wondering what my characters are like. Well...

Your jet plane is ready. It's time to jump in and go for a ride.

The Hunter

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “man is not truly one, but truly two” in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So it is that I’ve written about the animals and monsters that inspired two of the characters in my story. But, in a world of binaries, beasts cannot exist without hunters.

The Death of Actaeon  by Titian (1559-75), National Gallery London. Source:  Wikipedia

The Death of Actaeon by Titian (1559-75), National Gallery London. Source: Wikipedia

In a thriller novel, it’s conventional to have the ‘good’ guy pursue the ‘bad’ guy, or perhaps they pursue each other in a game of ‘cat-and-mouse’. Fair enough, I suppose, but it all seems a little bit boring.

Remember this?

In Christianity, wolves were a threat. Jesus calls upon his disciples and says “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In this verse, as in others, a shepherd warns his flock, the sheep needing protection from wolves which were symbols of greed and destruction, and sometimes Satan himself.

If you’ve ever pick up the Epic of Gilgamesh, you will find the titular character criticising Ishtar about her habit of betrayal (Tablet VI, Andrew George trans.):

You loved the shepherd, the grazier, the herdsman,
            who gave you piles of loaves baked in embers,
and slaughtered kids for you day after day.
You struck him and turned him into a wolf,
            now his very own shepherd boys chase him away,
and his dogs take bites at his haunches.

And so the protector can be turned into a predator at the whim of the gods. This is echoed centuries later in Greek mythology.

Artemis (or Diana to the Romans) was the goddess of the hunt, the “queen of beasts” according to Homer’s Iliad. One of the myths about Artemis refers to a man called Actaeon. The story exists in fragments, but it is mentioned in The Bacchae by Euripides (ll.336-341):

You saw
that dreadful death your cousin Actaeon died
when those man-eating hounds he had raised himself
savaged him and tore his body limb from limb
because he boasted that his prowess in the hunt surpassed
the skill of Artemis. 

It’s also interesting that The Bacchae is a play that explores the same duality of man that Stevenson wrote about centuries later. 

A decade after The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published, another book that may be familiar to readers was released: Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is in this story that we find another kind of hunter. Indeed, we find men who are not familiar with the nature of the hunt at all. As Dracula says to Harker (p.25):

“Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feeling of the hunter.”

This implies that hunting is not for a civilised creature (like Harker): it’s more primitive – it’s animal.

Van Helsing is the supreme hunter in Dracula (by default, really). He has a moment when he reminds those assembled to fight against Dracula (p. 253) that:

“ fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him – without heart of conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best ... We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God’s sunshine.” 

To fail, in this instance, is to be turned: poisoned, changed, altered – monstrous.

I once sat down with a pencil and paper and scrawled out the name ‘Van Helsing’, soon learning that rearranging the letters gives ‘Levan Singh.’  Singh is a common name in India, often used by warriors and kings, and is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘lion’. (Incidentally, ‘Levan’ is a Georgian form of ‘Leon’, which means ... lion.) Historically, lions represent courage and strength, though are also guardians (consider the sculpted lions on plinths that flank a temple’s entrance).

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the lion is used as a metaphor by Nietzsche and represents a man who rejects the old ways for a new morality.

For me, there is an echo of disquiet swirling around the morality of the hunter. Yes, the monsters must be defeated but the hunter may, at the whim of the gods (or fate, or nature, or perhaps inevitably) become a monster too. Or, perhaps the hunter needs to be a monster, an animal, to ensure victory.

Consider this: in Book II and III of The Republic, Plato defines a guardian class – those who would protect and also attack when needed. The guardians were to be educated in wisdom and courage, temperance and justice, while also subjected to strict physical training. But there were prohibitions too; for example, the guardians could not own private property. They are considered different, outsiders, their sole focus on attack and defence (Plato admired Sparta, incidentally).

Furthermore, in Ancient Rome, soldiers were restricted from entering the city. They were to remain outside of the pomerium unless on a victory parade through the city. Upon entering, they surrendered certain privileges. They had a job to do, but the citizens blocked out the reality of war by keeping the soldiers outside of the walls. Naturally, because, as Dracula said earlier:

“Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feeling of the hunter.”

Perhaps a modern example is in order. Check out this scene from Joss Whedon's Serenity.

And check out this from the movie Blood Diamond.

'Good guys' are boring, but stir in a little bit of villainy, add a dash of the monstrous, a dose of the animal, a sprinkling of belief in a cause, and toss the regret in the bin. How much more interesting does that sound?


The Serpent

Serpent is a word derived from the Latin serpens and serpentis: something that creeps – a snake. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent is a symbol of deceit and lies, and I’ve seen some argue that this is associated with the creature’s ‘forked tongue’. The easiest example to conjure is that of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan in disguise who tricked Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the forbidden tree.

Lamia , Herbert James Draper (1909). Source:  Wikipedia

Lamia, Herbert James Draper (1909). Source: Wikipedia

Deceptive figures like this are known as ‘tricksters’. Many myths and legends portray tricksters as talking animals and their favours usually have a sting in the tail. Adam and Eve gained knowledge of good and evil but were exiled from Paradise. In modern terms, civilisation is only possible if man is alienated from nature. Religiously, this is called the Fall of Man, a rejection that sees us forced to live in disgrace while trying to get back on good terms with God. However, in a strange twist during the Enlightenment, Satan came to be considered a hero who freed man from God’s tyranny. That's right: the devil is a heroic liberator. Satan’s act is tainted only by his motives. (Refer to this excerpt from Percy Shelley's A Defence of Poetry - it's too long to quote in full here, but it's fascinating. Further digging will reveal that Shelley's ultimate hero is Prometheus, whose motives were much more noble.) 

Satan as liberator manifests in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Here, Satan infiltrates the Garden of Eden (Book IV, ll.347-350):

...close the serpent sly
Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine
His braided train, and of his fatal guile
Gave proof unheeded...

That's right: he's up to something. But then we see a glimpse of the hero, stunned that God would confine his creations within the bounds of Paradise, showering them with trinkets and baubles while they remain ignorant of the civilisation they could create on their own (Book IV, ll.514-520):

One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: knowledge forbidd’n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know,
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?

But to free Adam and Eve, Satan has to persuade, con, and trick. Means and ends.

Trickster figures appear regularly in myths and legends. These deities usually set out to break the rules of the gods, and it ultimately has positive effects. This rebellion takes the form of cons or thievery, so the trickster can be cunning or foolish or both. In Greek mythology, Hermes is considered a trickster, and is sometimes depicted outwitting others for his own gain or for the benefit of others. He’s a messenger god who carries around a staff called the ‘caduceus’ – two snakes coiled around a winged staff. Hermes is protector and patron of (among other things) travellers, merchants, orators, wit, gamblers, liars, and thieves.

Hermes makes an appearance in a poem called 'Lamia' by John Keats (referencing a myth that, it can be argued, eventually evolved into that of the vampire/succubus). Lamia was a beautiful queen who had an affair with Zeus. Cursed by a jealous Hera, Lamia became a monstrous serpent that devoured her own children and spent her days consumed with grief. In Keats’ poem, Hermes stumbles upon Lamia in her serpent form and changes her back into a woman (in exchange for a small favour). Lamia pursues Lycius in Corinth, and, through deception, he falls in love with her. Her scheme comes undone at the wedding, when the philosopher Apollonius sees Lamia for who she truly is. Apollonius cries out to Lycius:

“Fool! Fool!” repeated he, while his eyes still
Relented not, nor mov’d; “from every ill
“Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day,
“And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?

Her deception revealed, Lamia vanishes. Lycius, deceived by his emotions, is told by Apollonius:

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine —
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into shade.

This plea to balance desire with reason is of little consolation to Lycius, who dies after Lamia disappears, perhaps of horror or despair.

But maybe reason isn’t enough to save a serpent’s victim anyway. Snakes can be vicious creatures, defending themselves through the delivery of deadly bites that their victims don’t always see it coming. In fact, accidentally stumbling upon a snake’s territory could lead to a vengeful bite for an unwitting victim. Blameless or not, a snake will defend its space.

In fact, this reminds me of Voltaire’s words about the basilisk (quoted from Chapter 15 of Zadig, by Voltaire): Animal, that will not suffer itself to be touch’d by a Man.

Aren’t serpents complicated creatures? Deceivers, liars, thieves, and tricksters; quick-witted and sly; cursed to be thought of as monstrous; insecure about their space, so much so that they will lash out viciously if their space is intruded. Cursed and considered monsters, they still bear a yearning to love, to be human, even when reason and logic are stacked against them.

Another great idea for a character, perhaps?

The Wolf

The Wolf has a history. A predator that stalks forests, a silent killer, a hunter; perhaps inevitably the wolf features in history, mythology and literature. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were suckled by a wolf as children. Lycaon, a kind of Arcadia, was turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment (for feeding the god a dead child as a test of divinity). Lykos in Greek, Lupus in Latin, to become a wolf was a curse, but to possess the qualities of a wolf could make a man legendary.

Jupiter and Lycaon  by Jan Cossiers (17th Century), Prado Museum. Source:  Wikipedia

Jupiter and Lycaon by Jan Cossiers (17th Century), Prado Museum. Source: Wikipedia

In Christianity, wolves were a threat. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus calls upon his disciples and says:

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

In this verse, as in others, a shepherd warns his flock, the sheep needing protection from wolves, which were symbols of greed and destruction, and sometimes Satan himself. Whether this troubled Satan is best summed up by Virgil, who wrote about this in his Eclogues, though I like Frances Bacon’s paraphrase better:

It never troubles the wolf how many the sheep be.

And, as Christopher Hitchens wrote:

...the shepherd protects the sheep and lambs not for their own good but the better to fleece and then to slay them.

St Francis of Assissi saved the town of Gubbio from a wolf that preyed on the people and their livestock. In fact, St Francis brokered a treaty between the people and the wolf, who had “done evil out of hunger.” The people kept the wolf fed and he, in turn, left Gubbio unharmed.

I could go on to talk about fairytales but I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’d like to share something I learned about Chechen lore. The culture of Chechnya holds wolves in high esteem. Amjad Jaimoukha wrote (p.153, The Chechens: A Handbook):

According to Chechen ethos, the wolf is the only animal that would enter into an unequal match, making up for any disadvantage by its agility, wit, courage and tenacity. If it loses a battle, it lies down facing the foe in full acceptance of its fate – Chechen poise equivalent to the famed British ‘stiff upper lip’.

It’s no wonder that warriors sought to acquire the characteristics of wolves before going into battle. Which, I have to say, brings us back to the Romans and a Latin proverb that reads Homo homini lupus est – man is wolf to man.

A hunter, a killer, silent and vicious. A curse, with qualities that are envied. A threat, a demon, a darkness that lurks at the edge of light, though not beyond reason. A courageous beast, stubborn, smart, courageous and determined. A man who preys on other men.

Sounds like the kind of qualities that could make an interesting protagonist in a thriller novel.


The Storm

‘Freedom,’ Albert Camus wrote, is ‘“that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm.”’ I immediately wrote that down after I read it for the first time. It immediately brought to mind the story of Phaethon from Ovid’s Metamorpheses. Phaethon, a mortal, was the son of Phoebus (the sun god), a deity that rode the chariot of the sun across the sky during the day. Offered anything by his father, Phaethon asked to be put in charge of the chariot. It didn’t end well, and Jupiter had to strike Phaethon from the sky with a bolt of lightning. The young boy’s epitaph sums it up (translated by A.S. Kline):

Here Phaethon lies who the sun's journey made
Dared all though by weakness was betrayed.
The Fall of Phaeton  by Peter Paul Rubens (1605), The National Gallery of Art Washington DC, Source:  Wikipedia

The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Rubens (1605), The National Gallery of Art Washington DC, Source: Wikipedia

Another translation (Hamilton) has it as:

Here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god's chariot fared.
And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.

I like the second one better. It’s the daring that appeals to me. Ovid’s tale of Phaethon is one of those cautionary tales, warning us to be aware of our own hubris. That’s good advice for mortals.


“Let them know men did this,” Draco says to Perseus. And Perseus, with a slash of his sword, decapitates Medusa and takes her head before flying to Argos on a Pegasus to defeat the Kraken, sending Hades back to the Underworld.

“Let them know men did this.”

I suspect there’s a common desire to be one of those men, to fight beside Achilles, to journey with Odysseus, to steal a kiss from Aphrodite, to cross the Styx and return. It’s a world of gods and heroes, monsters and villains.

It’s not our world, though. We have responsibilities: bills, exercise, eating right, turning up on time, smiling politely and shaking hands, and biting our tongue when we know it’s inappropriate to voice our true feelings.

Luckily, we have storytellers who can take us to these other places and allow us to walk alongside gods, monsters, heroes, and villains.

Some authors will write about superheroes, or gifted teenagers. Others will write about super-spies and exotic locations. Still, some write about adventures or zombie killers.

I write about villains.

I love villains. They transcend all of those inane formalities and obligations. They deliberately withdraw from the social contract and create their own morality. Plus, writing villains is lots of fun.

I was taught about the finest villains that literature had to offer while at university. Consider Dracula by Bram Stoker. The villain is an aristocratic man of noble birth and a history that stretches back to legendary battlefields, where he indulged his brutality against his enemies. Libidinous and violent indulgences are confined to the local area, which is why the locals avoid getting lost in the dark.

How about Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? Truly a case of hubris, though the line between villain and hero is blurred. And when the creature turns, what obligation does he have to play by the doctor’s rules? It’s not like he asked to be made in the first place.

Finally, The Strange Tale of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. A potion of some potency liberates the darkest urges of Jekyll through the proxy of Hyde. They are one and the same, and perhaps go some way to make my point.

The important thing to know is that I've written a novel full of villains. You could say I set the chariot free and let the storm rage. So, if you’re tired of smiling politely at the in-laws, come spend your time with some outlaws instead.

C'mon! It'll be fun! 

The Inscription

If you’ve had the opportunity to meet me and ask me to sign your copy of No Free Man, you would’ve noticed that I leave a specific inscription on the title page before adding my signature. I’ve told a few people about this inscription, but it’s time for a thorough explanation.

Arma virumque cano are the words I inscribe, and will always inscribe, on the title page of No Free Man. I first discovered these words as an epigraph in Without Remorse by Tom Clancy, a book I first read as a teenager. The words meant nothing to me at the time. I didn’t even know how to pronounce them (ARMa VEERumKWAY CARNo for those who are wondering). I eventually learned that the words were Latin, and translate as “I sing of arms and a man.”

Arma virumque cano are the first words in The Aeneid by Virgil, a Latin epic poem written over 2000 years ago. Virgil writes in the tradition of the epic Greek poets that came before him. Therefore, Virgil ‘sings’ because the storytellers of Ancient Greece used to perform their stories rather than write them down. The ‘man’ that Virgil writes about is Aeneas, a man who fled the burning city of Troy and started a journey that would lead him to found the city of Rome. The ‘arms’ (or ‘war’ or ‘struggle’) are the battles fought along the way.

Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci (1598), Galleria Borghese. Source: Wikipedia

Here’s the thing. Aeneas didn’t get to choose to conquer another country and found Rome: it was his fate. Nothing could change that, not even the gods.

Here’s another thing. The epic poets of Ancient Greece invoked the Muses, one of nine goddesses that command the arts and sciences, when writing their stories. It was the Muses who chose the storyteller, and the opening lines of many stories begin with a short prayer. The Muses, answering the prayer, would sing to the storyteller and he, in turn would sing to us. The opening line of Homer’s epic The Iliad are:

“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles...”

Virgil’s prayer doesn’t appear until a few lines into his poem, where he writes:

“Musa, mihi causas memora...”

“Oh, Muse,” Virgil writes, “sing to me the causes.”

Never let anybody tell you that reading thrillers won’t lead to something special.

I believe that classic stories are still read because each generation finds something in the stories that resonates. Sometimes we find something new, and sometimes we rediscover something that broader minds found a way to express, that sense of something intangible that we lack the tools to articulate. My own writing is haunted by the ghosts of these writers. Perhaps this is a form of tribute, though I truly hope that maybe the breadcrumbs I leave will lead readers to those greater books.

No Free Man is a story about a man, his war, and his fate, but it’s also about so much more. My Muse told me so, a topic for another post, perhaps.

The First Blog Post

Dear Readers,

I’m not a blogger and I’m still unsure what I should write here, but it would be rude of me not to at least say hello. My debut novel has been out for three weeks. Perhaps you’ve read it and decided to find me on the internet. Perhaps you saw an advertisement for my book on the train. Perhaps you’re on the train now, and decided to look me up. Any one of these reasons is enough to compel me to fill this space. It’s long overdue.

But I’m not one to write nonsense. As I meet more of you, and I hope to in the future, I’ll gain an appreciation for what you’d like to know about me and what you’d like to read here. Some of you might like to hear what I did to get to this place. Some might want to hear how I got published. Some might want to hear my thoughts on writing a good thriller. Others might just like to talk about my book, and politely ask when there will be another.

I can write about all of those things, if you like.

And I will.

For now, I’d like to welcome you to this place. Make yourself comfortable. My name is Graham Potts and I’m a mechanic who wanted to write thriller novels. Here I am, writing thriller novels. My debut novel is No Free Man, and it will be the first of many in a series. I write around my full-time job, which can make things complicated sometimes. Time becomes precious. So does sleep. But I promise to make time for people who want to chat. Writing thriller novels is one thing, but I can’t be an author if I don’t have readers, so I will always make time for readers.

You can join me on Facebook or Goodreads too, but feel free to stop by here once in a while. As I get the hang of it, I’ll make sure I write some posts chock full of good stuff for you to read. In the meantime, thank you for stopping by and I hope to talk again soon.