On Weeding & Writing - an occasional eclectic blog by author C.F. Dunn

‘The Migrant’ blog tour with author Paul Alkazraji

Author Paul Alkazrji has caused a bit of a stir with his new book The Migrant. Taking a moment out of his busy blog tour, Paul joins me to tell us more about the background to The Migrant and his writing life. I laughed when he said his reading  included authors such as Alistair MacLean. I grew up devouring thriller/mystery/suspense novels, which is probably why I like the genre too.

So, Paul, The Migrant is a work of fiction that involves very real issues. How do you find the balance between fact and fiction – between entertainment and harsh reality? 

  The Migrant is quite a gritty story. It portrays racist violence, riots on the streets of Athens, and people-trafficking from Albania. They are harsh realities in these countries. I hope, though, that because of my own faith framework the reader will not be left feeling bleak or sullied by what passes before their eyes. At perhaps the worst moment in The Migrant the camera turns away. The reader knows what happens, and the fact of it is shocking enough, but it is not depicted. Scenes are not as graphic or gratuitous as some that can be found in mainstream fiction. I personally have a low tolerance of it, though, like everyone else, as entertainment in the mainstream pushes at that line, the danger is we become increasingly desensitised to it. The fulcrum of ‘acceptable’ harsh reality vis-à-vis entertainment is moving. 

Not everyone may be comfortable reading The Migrant, but so far the novel hasn’t been criticised for the harsh realities it portrays. I hope that people will trust me enough as a writer to walk with me through troubling and dangerous places that I will bring them out of. Jude is a good character in whose company it is safe to travel, despite the people and events around him. 

You write in a very specific genre. What made you choose this area? 

The genre of thriller/suspense/adventure has been a favourite in my adult life, including authors like Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth, which have had their influence on me. I very much enjoy reading and watching documentaries about current affairs and more recent history. As a writer, I’ve understood that to create a captivating story a key way is to keep your characters in some kind of intriguing situation from which they will move on to another. It could be a state of physical danger, or something as intangible as the fear of a dream, but there should always be a kind of dilemma or knife edge of drama close at hand, even if it is only a delusion in the mind of a character. That said though, I’m not interested in tension solely for thrills, but as an absorbing effect around the lives of Christian characters and their worldview. It’s so important to me that a story fleshes out those realities.  

Aspiring writers always want to know where a good plot comes from. How did you find and develop the idea for The Migrant? 

Quite simply by giving my protagonist, Jude Kilburn, a compelling desire to find and help the character of Alban, and then by throwing all kinds of obstacles in his path to thwart the realisation of that. The obstacles came quite naturally out of the local context of Albania and Greece, and all that has truly happened there in recent years. 

Characters are central to a story. How did you develop yours? 

Pic ‘Albanian couple in village’ by P. Wilson. ‘Give minor characters a memorable characteristic that singles them out from the rest of humanity.’ 

By profiling the major ones and giving the minor ones a memorable characteristic that singles them out from the rest of humanity. I sketched all this out before placing them in the story, then tried to make sure they acted consistently with the characteristics given them, maybe even changing the plot if it became at odds with their personalities. 

For example, with Donis Xenakis the antagonist, a member of the Greek riot police and Neo-Hellenic Front sympathiser, I set about using five key ways to characterise. (1. Physical attributes. 2. Clothing or the manner of wearing it. 3. Psychological attributes and mannerisms. 4. Through actions. 5. In dialogue.) Donis has heterochromia: one brown and one green iris. He wears mirror-lensed sunglasses with the classic elliptical aviator shape. He thinks he’s as irresistible to women as a saucer of milk to a thirsty kitten. He casts bureaucracy aside to give food to an old Greek man sleeping rough because of economic austerity. He says of migrants in Athens: “I’m sick of them … pushing their trinkets and love bracelets in my face.” The minor character of Ervin loped and ‘always seemed to duck his head when he moved, as if he were dodging punches’. 

How do you believe that your experiences have influenced you as a writer?

In every way they are the raw material I’ve drawn upon to make works of fiction. They provide the central casting agency from which I populate a story. They are like the wide angle lens through which I can pan across the landscape of the Balkan region. They give me the spiritual compass by which I’ve navigated the direction the story will travel: from darkness to light, separation to restoration, enslavement to redemption. 

How do you get into writing mode? 

I treat it as an office worker treats their job. I go to my desk in the morning with a cup of coffee and soon become absorbed in it. I stay there all day until just before dinner in the evening. That way I get it done. 

If The Migrant  was adapted to film, who would play the lead role and why? 

In the BBC’s recent adaption of John le Carré’s novel ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, actor Alexander Skarsgard plays the agent ‘Gadi’, who works with a team of Israelis pursuing a terrorist cell from Greece to Germany. I think Skarsgard could play the strong, risk-taking yet compassionate male character that Jude Kilburn is… very well.

 

Paul, very many thanks for joining me today in what has been a fascinating insight into your creative process. I, for one, would love to see Alexander Skarsgard play Jude in a TV or film adaptation!

 

The Migrant was published by Instant Apostle in February. 

The author Paul Alkazraji in the Albanian mountains close to the border with Greece. Pic by Andrew LaSavio. 

Links:

Chapter 1 of The Migrant is free to read here:

https://instantapostle.com/2019/02/22/sample-chapter-the-migrant/ 

On Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5655990.Paul_Alkazraji

On Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Migrant-Muthena-Paul-Alkazraji/dp/1909728985/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

On Twitter @paul_alkazraji 

New Book Review!

My lovely editor at Lion Fiction has just alerted me to a great review of THE SECRET OF THE JOURNAL series in April’s Woman Alive magazine. It’s reviews like this that keep an author happily scribing into the wee small hours, day in, day out.

Women’s Clatter

I’ve been keeping company with George, Duke of Clarence this afternoon and have had enough of his shenanigans for one day. As a bit of a change I’ve dipped into the chapter on ‘Women’, by P.J.P. Goldberg in Fifteenth-Century Attitudes and come across these gems: “Doghter, temper well thi tonge’, (from The Good Wyf Wold A Pylgremage) and this useful advice to men, ‘whyls they ar yong/If ye luf youre lifys, chastice thare tong.‘ (from the Wakefield pageant). The prohibition against women’s ‘clatter’ that runs through many Medieval texts can also be seen in the present day. It’s a bit of an eye-opener.

On Weeding and Writing: Creative Gardening Writes Novels

Can creative gardening write novels? I think it can. It’s that post-Christmas period when the morning sun reveals the dust on the shelves and the first snowdrops and winter aconites wink under the hedges. I ache to get out into the garden and continue the jobs left undone at the close of autumn.

 

With Thegn’s help I’ve been concentrating on clearing ivy in the spring garden. Seedlings of ash and sycamore have over-wintered there as well, and their bare stems defy attempts to dislodge them. Where I win the battle, I push crocus bulbs and snowdrops into the loosened soil, and plant wild primroses and spotted pulmonaria (lungwort) under the shelter of the trees. They look sad at the moment but, given gentle rain and warm sun in equal measure, will soon rally, providing nectar for emerging bees.

Such repetitive work gives me plenty of time to think about writing. Often, gardening is when the best ideas filter into my consciousness, bud, and blossom. Over subsequent weeks as the garden develops, I weed out the blind bulbs of ideas that lead nowhere, the weak seedlings that undermine the plot. I feed and tend the stronger saplings whose branches will bear the most fruit and the best storylines. In my garden, I flesh out my characters and prune those that get ahead of themselves. Even the very act of tending the soil gives ideas for the future. While Emma D’Eresby in The Secret of the Journal series hates gardening (because her father loves it), Isobel Fenton in The Tarnished Crown series lives for it. For her, the garden is a place of refuge in a land of turmoil where she, and she alone, is mistress.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons I like to garden. Here, I have the time, the space, and the freedom to create. From a simple patch of bare ground I can make a world of my own, whether in my head or on my knees, in the certain knowledge that hard graft now, will bear fruit later.

 

New Book Contract: love and treachery during the Wars of the Roses

I am delighted to announce that I’ve signed a three-book contract with Lion Fiction.  

The first book in my historical trilogy is due for release in 2020. Wheel of Fortune launches into the turmoil of England in the C15th. The country is turning a corner after the ravages of the Black Death; the Hundred Years War is finally over, but conflict and treachery have come to haunt the families that survived.

I’m back on home territory with a story that charts the fortunes of young Isobel Fenton as she negotiates the treacherous political landscape of the Wars of the Roses and the mid-C15th. This is a period of history I started studying way back at the age of nine when I picked up my brother’s book on the history of England and became hooked. It was one of those traditional histories that paints monarchs in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – simplistic even to my child’s eyes. I remember being outraged at the depiction of Richard III even though I knew nothing about him, and it led to a lifetime of research.

That was the beginning. Now, decades later, I still study the political fortunes of the C15th, but this time, as a novelist. I get the best of both worlds.

Happy Christmas!

 

Wherever you are, whatever you do, be as kind to yourself as you are to others. Put your feet up, pour yourself a favourite tipple (or brew), and have a joyful, blessed and gentle Christmas. 🎄

Welcome to My World with Guest Author, Tamara Tilley

 I am delighted to have novelist Tamara Tilley join me all the way from the United States as my guest. Author of page-turning fiction, Tamara is also rated as in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads – an accolade earned through her thorough and insightful reviews of fiction in many genres. https://tamara-tilley.blogspot.com

Tamara has been writing since 2003 in the Christian/Romance/Suspense genre. The characters she creates are never perfect (thank goodness) but it’s their flaws that make them real. She is passionate about reading and excited to see the strides Christian artists are making in the self-publishing field. With her husband, she lives and works at Hume Lake Christian Camps where they have been full-time staff ministering there for over twenty years.

 

You write in a very specific genre. What made you choose this area? The first time I picked up a book to read for pleasure (something I didn’t think was possible), it was Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. As you can imagine, I was hooked. Years later, I had an idea for a story and started writing, not knowing if I would be able to finish it. That was the start of my writing journey.

How do you get ideas for plots? Without sounding too weird, they just come to me. I have numerous concepts from simple outlines to page counts up to 300 that I have yet to complete. 

Characters are central to a story. How do you develop yours? I start with a general idea—what their weaknesses are or what they’re dealing with in life—and they kind of fill in the blanks.

Many authors say they have always wanted to write – is this true of you? No. The complete opposite. My weakest subjects in high school were English and Literature. I barely passed with “C’s”. I hated reading and thought “reading for pleasure” was an oxymoron. I was a math major and still consider that my strength. Even so, now I love starting a story and seeing where it goes. 

When did you first start writing? 2003

If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing? Well, since I only write it in my free time, my true job is as a retail manager at Hume Lake Christian Camps and my other hobby is making greeting cards.

How do you get into writing mode? A clean house (so I don’t feel guilty that I am fudging my real responsibilities), a comfy chair, and an idea.

If your latest book REUNION was adapted to film, who would play the lead role? Kate Hudson and Taylor Kinney (T.V. show Chicago Fire). 

Plotter of pantser? Do you have a full draft or let it develop as you write? Total pantser. I never know when I start a story where it’s going to end.

Do your characters usually behave or do they sometimes take you by surprise and do their own thing? They definitely have their way with me. When I’ve tried to explain to people that characters sometimes take on a life of their own, they look at me like I’m crazy. But other writers totally get it.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred? I wouldn’t necessarily say blurred, maybe believable or real. My book One Saturday is about a woman who has suffered a physical assault. One reader was so concerned that I was speaking from experience, she wanted to make sure I was okay. I took it as a compliment.  

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure? Romance-suspense. I definitely like suspense and intrigue with my romance. I’m not into cozy or sappy. I like grit. I like characters that are flawed and don’t have all the answers.

Do you have a favourite author and why? I definitely have favorite(s). I would say Dee Henderson’s The O’Malley Series is what inspired me to first start writing. But other authors I love to read are (in no special order): Marylu Tyndall, Ronie Kendig, Janice Cantore, Susan May Warren, Dani Pettrey, DiAnn Mills, and Lynette Eason. And self-published authors Sally Bradley and Amy Matayo.

 

I used to say that I didn’t like the genres of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or period pieces. But Marylu Tyndall introduced me to mermaids and archers. Tamara Leigh introduced me to medieval heroes and heroines. And, last but not least, C.F. Dunn introduced me to those things that cannot be explained. I remember when I was sent Death Be Not Proud for review purposes. When I started reading it, I wasn’t thrilled that it had a paranormal bent to it, but I continued because of my agreement to write a review. I became completely consumed by it. I was enthralled with the characters and the escalation of danger and passion. Your writing is so articulate and intelligent. Your characters have flaws and obstacles that make them real and relatable. The entire series is one of the best I have read, and one of very few series I have on my re-read list. You definitely stretched my boundaries and my thinking. 

What do you think of the rising field of self-publishing? I absolutely love it. I feel it has expanded the options for Christian readers. I understand that Christian publishers have to market to the broadest possible audience, and by doing so, they have strict guidelines on content and storylines. Unfortunately, I feel that doesn’t always allow for authenticity and reality. Christians stumble and fall. Christians don’t always do or say the right thing. We are immersed in a world that straddles the fence and makes excuses for wrong choices. To write stories that ignore the realities of life or portray heroes and heroines that can do no wrong, makes them unrelatable. Yes, I read for escapism, but not into a world that insults my intelligence. The expansion of self-published books from Christian authors have bridged a gap for those of us who want a little more realism in our novels without having to sift through the tawdry or inappropriate. To clarify – I never glorify sin in my novels, I just don’t ignore it.

Cooking Up A Storm: Spicing It Up

Have you ever tried home-made crabapple jelly? Best eaten with lamb, chicken and turkey, I grew up on this late-summer staple.  My father took me scrumping the old crabapple (or crab apple – Malus) trees on the RAF base where we lived and, years later, we planted our own and nurtured them to fruition.

 

Between research, writing and renovating the house, I’m getting in a bit of jelly making – kindly assisted by Thegn’s quality control. One of the good things about moving home is discovering what’s been planted over the years. This crabapple is the deepest burgundy and is streaked with ruby inside. The apples are HUGE compared with most crabapple varieties – size of an average lime – and cook to a glorious raspberry pink. The resulting jelly retains a dry, almost astringent flavour and is not as fragrant as, say, John Downie or Dartmouth. I’ll be experimenting by adding spices and port for a wintery slant, and flakes of chilli pepper to liven things up bit. I expect generations have savoured those same scents of stewing apples and spices, redolent of late summer sun. Timeless.

 

From C15th Gode Cookery

To make Char de Crabb. Recipe crabbs & seth þam in watur tyll þai be softe, & take hony & strene þe crabbs þerwith throgh a cloth. Put to a iijd part of claryfyed hony & a quantyte of sawndyrs, & colour it with saforun; þen put þerto a quantyte of powdyr of peper & ij d worth of þe flour of anneys & a quantyte of powdyre of licorys. Þen take grated brede & mold it vp þerwith, & put it in cophyns & serof it forth, & bene facis. Quod Don Thomas Awkbarow. 

From: C. B. Hieatt “The Middle English Culinary Recipes in MS Harley 5401: An Edition and Commentary.” 

 

 

 

P.S. If anyone has any idea what variety of crabapple these are, please drop me a line and let me know.

Stripping the Past: Restoration Games

Since my last post on restoring our Arts and Crafts house, things have moved on apace. I finished removing all the modern polyurethane from the wide window seat in my study and then started eyeing up the rest of the room. There’s an inglenook fireplace from the original 1630’s house in my study. Edward Sturdy surrounded it in an oak mantle and this, too, had been given ‘the treatment’ sometime in the 1990’s. Now a dark, icky mahogany brown, the beautiful grain of the wood was lost and the surface dull. As you know, I am wary of removing any finish that might be original but, spurred on by the stripping of the window seat, I set out to do a similar job on the mantle.

 

The copper bell push had to be removed for cleaning. A lovely thing, it had been lacquered sometime in the last twenty years and needed the old coating removed before polishing,, finding a replacement button, and being put back. Behind the bell the original surface glowed a medium oak, a perfect witness to our hunch that almost the entire house had been subject to a mahogany stain on the extensive areas of woodwork.

 

Anyway, as before I used a chemical paint stripper (Paint Panther) that softened the varnish enough to be removed without damaging the wood. It took a few coats, scraping (carefully), wire wool, and wire brushes to take off a lot of mucky gunge. I then rubbed the exposed wood with white spirit, used a fine tool to clean the really-hard-to-get niggly bits, and brushed on liquid beeswax and natural turpentine (Liberon) to nourish the surface. Left to dry for upwards of twenty-four hours, this was then buffed to a subtle sheen.

 

Removing the inappropriate wood stain revealed the probable reason for it: surfaces chewed by time and woodworm. I can understand people wanting to unify the look of the wood; some would say that the use of Douglas fir and oak (and walnut, in some places) was a bit eccentric of Edward Toronto Sturdy, but then that is part of the charm of his house – it’s quirky.

 

The next project to tackle will be the tiled fireplace. At some point, the 9×9 inch red quarry tiles were painted a heavy, pillar box red. I have no idea whether I can rid them of the noxious coating, but I’m willing to give it a go.