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A 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

A 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

Super-quick housekeeping: We’ve just launched a new course – Jumpstart Your Novel – that offers a really serious way to get started with a book. It’s aimed more at relative beginners but has the seriousness of intent common to all our courses. More in the PSes at the bottom.

Right. So:

In one of the Bond movies, Bond and The Girl (in this case, Madeleine Swann, played by Lea Seydoux) are standing at a rail-stop in the desert when a car approaches, shimmering out of the dust. Swann says, ‘What’s that?’, which is not a dumb question, because the vehicle is barely visible. Bond lets the car get a little closer, then says, with a kind of satisfaction, ‘That is a 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.’

And look: this is a movie, not a book.

And look: a Bond movie is more of a fantasy movie, than it is a realist one.

And look Bond is Bond. We appraise Bond movies according to a general scale of Bondishness. Ordinary critical tools are not strictly relevant here.

Nevertheless, Bond is a useful way to explain the temptation. Bond’s comment there tells the reader that he loves vintage cars and is at least somewhat expert in them. In other movies, Bond shows a similar expertise in wines, in Russian military secrets, and much else.

The movie makers (and Ian Fleming, the author) are at pains to characterise via expertise. Bond knows about the good things in life (wines, cars, watches). He knows about the violent things in life (guns, weapons, and the rest.) The viewer or reader understands something of Bond’s character from the knowledge he chooses to display.

But – Bond is a fantasy, given licence by its fame. Your novel does not have that licence. Let’s say an author creates a character who is (why not?) a professional escort with ambitions to become a spy. She’s with a client and comments ‘He wears an Alexander McQueen double-cuffed shirt, with custom-made silver links. A Patek Philippe Nautilus gleams from beneath the cuff …’

What are your thoughts as a reader?

The author, I think, wants you to have two things in mind. First, this character lives in a world of exciting luxury and, second, that she has a kind of enviable expertise to share. The knowledge she has lends her a kind of class.

I’m not sure that either of these things is achieved. As a writer, you want to get the reader feeling present in this world of luxury. For me, and for most readers, that will not be achieved by a list of brand-names. I can’t picture a Patek Philippe Nautilus. I’ve no idea how an Alexander McQueen shirt looks different from any other kind of shirt. As a reader, we don’t think, ‘Yes, I feel present here …’. We think, ‘Oh, the author wants me to know that this is all very luxurious.’ That second thought is a hopelessly poor substitute for the first.

Once upon a time – when Ian Fleming was writing, for example – technical knowledge did, I suppose, bring some cachet. “Oh, Ian Fleming must know plenty about wines if he says that the Petrus ’54 was markedly better than the ’57.” But today? Phooey. We all have Wikipedia at our fingertips. We can all know as much of anything as we want. (Even my nine-year-old has achieved a strange degree of expertise in her chosen discipline: “Which horse has more stamina, a Morgan or a Connemara …?” “How many hands is a Welsh cob?” “Is a Friesian horse good for beginners …?” My wife and I have promised to buy her a horse, once she has saved up enough to buy a field to put it in.)

The really severe problem, however, is that in most cases the rush to brand-namery ends up emptying the character. So, honestly, how many people can tell from a brief glance at a watch peeping from beneath a cuff, what make and model it is? I’d say almost none. Even the Patek Philippe-wearing crowd wouldn’t be able to do that. Presumably a seller of posh watches could tell one from another. Ditto anyone deeply involved in the industry itself. But who else? Virtually no one. So either our escort has a side-hustle as a saleswoman. Or she’s just peculiarly interested in watches. Or (in practice) the author is simply steam-rolling the character in order to get a brand-name in.

You can’t do that. Your character is the most important element of your whole book. The most delicate. If you crush her – however temporarily – for the sake of a brand reference, you have diminished your reader’s attachment to the person whose job is to get the reader through the book. That’s never a choice worth making.

If you want to show that your escort character is comfortable with this kind of environments, you need to do so in a way that reflects who she is. This kind of thing, for example:

He spends a lot of time adjusting his jacket, his shirt cuffs, the gleam of his watch. Before the end of the evening, he’ll have to mention what kind of watch it is. The less classy types – that is, most of them – tell me how much it cost. The lowest figure I’ve been given is eight thousand pounds. The highest is nearly hundred grand. To begin with, I assume they were bullshitting me, that these numbers were all part of the brag. Now, I think the numbers are pinpoint accurate. Money is the only metric for these people, the one thing they never lie about.

That passage still shows expertise of a sort: an expertise in sleazy rich guys. It also displays a useful sliver of ignorance. She doesn’t really know about the prices of these things. Her judgements are to do with people, not watches. The result is that the passage enhances her credibility as a character. We’re further into a fictional world, not pushed out of it. We feel the world that the author wants us to see, but we encounter it in a way that places character first. That’s the way to do it, always.

I don’t write about high-luxury environments myself, but I have included in the PSes a chunk of one of my Fiona Griffiths books, in which my character (operating undercover as a low-paid, semi-homeless cleaner) enters an upmarket winebar. The bar is not remotely at the Patek Philippe level of luxury, but the step from Fiona’s current life-level to the bar is a big one. I don’t mention a single brandname in the chunk below, and don’t need to.

You’ll need to read the passage to see if it works, but if it does, it achieves its effect by:

  • Using simple, telling detail – a hole in a boot, a sodden foot.
  • Using descriptive language that explicitly avoids excessive knowledge
  • Imagery that emphasises distance, not belonging
  • Getting the character to behave in a way that’s wrong for the place she’s in.

Simple to say and, phew, simple enough to do.

I once bought a knock-off Rolex in New York’s Chinatown for $10. It looked really nice until all the gold rubbed off, but even then it had a kind of charm. If I had $100 million, I still wouldn’t buy a fancy watch. My little Tabby might get a pony though …

Til soon.


PS: Ah yes, that course. We’re genuinely excited about it. We haven’t had a proper in-depth “Start Your Novel” course for years now, and this is a very good one. It’ll be right for anyone who’s willing to commit for 8 weeks and is properly serious about writing a novel. There’s not a huge gap between launch date and the start of the course, so if you’re interested, then jump in fast.

I should say as well, that to deliver this course, we’ve teamed up with an outfit called PWA, who specialise in very high-quality writing courses. This course has been road-tested on students already and came out of it really well. We wouldn’t endorse a course unless we really believed in it, and we really do. More details here.

PPS: Here’s the chunk. My comments in square brackets.

I was here early. Six twenty. Have been walking up and down since then looking in at the warmly lit windows and feeling out of place. One of my boots has a hole in the sole and my foot is sodden. [Simple indicator of poverty]

But in the end, I go in.

It’s a smart bar, nicely done. Dark wooden floor. Scrubbed wooden bar. Lots of heavy fittings: oak casks, brass nautical lamps, a huge glass bowl filled with wine corks and dried hops. [Nothing resembling a brandname, let alone expert knowledge. The opposite, in fact. These are observations that anyone at all is capable of making.]

I stand, dripping, in the entrance area as men in suits and women in tailored outfits talk, laugh, fiddle with their phones. [Again: the opposite of brandnames. The emptiness of that phrase, tailored outfits, almost says, ‘Look, I expect other people would know how to describe those clothes better, but I don’t, because I’m not of that world.]

A waiter with a stubbly beard and a blue neckerchief approaches. He’s wearing a smile but I have this vision of him simply clearing me away, the way you might if you came into your kitchen and found a dead pigeon or a stray drowned mouse making a mess of your scrubbed limestone floors. [A characteristic Fiona-ish image, but again one that emphasises the huge gulf between her and this place.]

I stand there, dripping, waiting to be tidied. Wet cotton mops and metal buckets.

But I’m not tidied. Vic [the person she’s here to meet] emerges from behind a raw oak pillar. My face must change somehow, because the waiter swings round, sees Vic. Some look is exchanged, and the waiter waves me over to where Vic has a table waiting.

‘You made it,’ he says.

He clucks around me, a fussy uncle. He wants me to remove my coat, but I keep it on. Take off my hat, but keep it close. [She does the wrong thing, socially, in this environment. It’s not just the badness of her clothes. She doesn’t know the right way to behave.]

He wants me to choose a drink. Pushes a long wine list at me, tells me to order anything. I ask for water. He tells me again to order anything, meaning that water doesn’t count, so I say orange juice, a small one. [Ditto!]He orders another glass of red wine for him, a bowl of olives, toasted ciabatta slices and olive oil, a selection of antipasti, and my orange juice. [Vic does know the right way to behave and his unfussed accuracy of behaviour is a better clue to his social milieu than the kind of watch he chooses to wear.]

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  1. What is a Silver Wraith? you ask. Just before WWII Rolls-Royce realised that the cars they produced were too expensive to make. So, they planned to build a ‘Rationalised Range’ of cars, that would use common parts for the different models. The Silver Wraith was the first model of that range, and was launched in 1946. The Silver Wraith was only offered as a rolling chassis, the coachwork being added by independent coachbuilders (except for Park Ward Ltd., coachbuilders that were owned by Rolls-Royce). The last Silver Wraith chassis left the RR factory at Crewe in 1959.

  2. The line, ‘He wears an Alexander McQueen double-cuffed shirt, with custom-made silver links. A Patek Philippe Nautilus gleams from beneath the cuff …’ might have been lifted from Bret Easton Ellis’s current bestseller, The Shards. In this autofiction set in 1981, seventeen-year-old Bret drives to school in a Mercedes 450SL and uses a Gucci backpack as a satchel. The girls prefer to drive to school in BMWs, while others drive Tornados or Porsche 911s. These kids dress in Armani, Polo, and Gucci. The critical consensus is that the effect is mesmerising—perhaps his best work.

    On the other hand, with apologies if this seems harsh, your paragraph beginning, ‘He spends a lot of time adjusting his jacket, his shirt cuffs …’ is a bit of a slog.

  3. A few random thoughts.
    1. I loathe unnecessary brand name detail – every time I came across a computer model in the Steig Larsson Millennium books it immediately pulled me out of the story and made me feel I was looking at an online Apple store. I wanted to know what Lisbeth was doing on her computer not what make it was. But that’s just the kind of reader I am and each to their own!
    2. I have learned to forgive Dick Francis for unnecessary research & technical information in his books as I understand it was because his wife did the research and there were domestic/ marital reasons for keeping this in the book. Still jars and pulls me out of the story when I come across it though because now I think about their marriage instead.
    3. Harry’s daughter is going to have to do a lot of chores to save up for a parcel of land for her pony. Maybe ‘own a horse’ will have to go onto her ‘things to do now I’m 50’ bucket list….