It’s hot here. There’s an outdoor pool near me and I was there the other day with a load of people stretched out on sun loungers, chatting, reading or fiddling with phones.
Now the phone-fiddlers, we can sneer at and discard. To them I say, Phooey. To them I say, Pah. To them I say, Get a life, bud.
The chatters? We have to make room for those in our world. Human connection, face to face? We want more of that, not less.
But the readers? Ah, the readers! Those people feed us. Without the readers, we’d be reduced to beggary, hawking our unwanted stories for a crust of yesterday’s bread.
And there are two types of reader. There are magazine-readers and there are book-readers. Magazine reading is interesting. There’s something intentionally provisional about reading a magazine. You’re almost announcing to the world that you are happy to be interrupted. Your attention span is held anywhere from the five seconds it takes to look at a picture to the few minutes it takes to read an article. You’re saying, I’m a bit bored and I’d welcome interruption.
With books on the other hand, you announce the opposite. You say I am busy in this other world of mine. I intend to be busy in this place for the next hour or two or three. So please take your idle chatter somewhere else: I have no time for you.
There is almost no way of consuming art which demands more commitment. Yes, some plays or operas have a long running time. But they are still relatively passive. You commit to them when you buy a ticket and again when you turn up. Thereafter, the default action is to stay sitting and watching. You don’t have to commit; you have to sit.
With a novel, on the other hand, that default doesn’t exist. It is perfectly acceptable to put your book down and never pick it up again. If you continue reading, it is because you have truly committed to the three or four or six hours it takes you to finish that book. Each finished book, is a little victory, a marathon completed.
To help your reader complete that marathon, you mostly have to do all those good things that we always talk about. Build a great plot. Develop a great character. Clothe your story in rich settings. And so on. Those things are the backbone, always.
But I have a little soft spot for treats scattered for the reader. Treats that almost directly acknowledge how committed the reader has been and how much they have earned this little bonbon.
So, for example, in my Love Story, With Murders, Fiona is interviewing a somewhat self-absorbed Englishwoman. She asks a question and:
.. Gets a shrug, not an answer.
‘Sophie, we need a “Yes” or a “No”.’
‘Look, he didn’t talk to me about any of that. There’s a cottage he used to go to. He shared it with his brother and sister. We used to go as a family, in summer mostly. It’s a bit …’
She makes a face. A face which says, ‘I’m too precious to deal with anything muddy, or wet, or rustic, or basic.’ It’s a face the English have used about the Welsh for fifteen centuries. Fifteen centuries, during which they stole our farmland, murdered our princes and scattered castles, a giant Saxon screw you, the length and breadth of the country.
Wales is the world capital of medieval castles, the world’s most conquered nation. Either that, or the most belligerent.
‘Twll dîn pob Sais,’ I say.
‘Doesn’t matter. The address of the cottage, please.’
That’s it. Unless you speak Welsh, what Fiona says to Sophie Hinton is completely opaque. The (English-speaking) reader is waiting for an explanation that never comes.
Except it does. A full 200 pages later, Fiona is in Glasgow, Scotland and this happens:
Two kids pass my car. One of them raps on my window. I wind my window down and say, ‘Yes?’ The kid says something in an accent so thick I don’t understand it. I reply in Welsh, the same thing as I said to Sophie Hinton. Twll dîn pob Sais. Every Englishman an arsehole. He goes off muttering. He might as well be speaking Icelandic.
I guess there’s something funny there. Fiona was apparently conducting her Sophie Hinton interview in a vaguely professional manner, but just slipped into Welsh when she wanted to insult Hinton and her entire people. And because Hinton didn’t know Welsh, she didn’t know she’d been insulted.
But also: the later little episode in Scotland is something very close to a direct acknowledgement of the reader’s support. “You’ve stuck it out almost to the end of the book, so here’s a little gift of mine. You wanted to know what that phrase meant two hundred pages back and I didn’t tell you. But you’ve stuck with me all this time so here’s your reward. And a little laugh. And a thank you.”
Or another example – again towards the end of a book, a reward for commitment.
In this case, the allusion goes right back to a previous book, which is picked up again in this one. In that other book, Fiona encounters a young woman, Francesca / Cesca, who keeps some dope in a ‘Little hippy-dippy Indian box.’ Cesca thinks Fiona is quite odd (which she is) and calls her ‘Ess’, short for ‘Strange Detective.’ This isn’t a deeply important relationship, but it is significant enough that any reader of the series will certainly remember it.
And then, towards the end of The Deepest Grave, Fiona’s just had a rough night. She’s about to make some arrests. It’s four in the morning, but she makes a call:
I ring off. Call Cesca.
She answers, sleepily.
‘Cesca, it’s me. Your strange detective.’
‘Ess? Hi. Are you OK?’
‘I’m fine. Where are you? Right now. Where are you?’
Plas Du, is the answer. Her mother’s house near Llantwit.
‘Good. That’s good. Then do you want to see how this ends? This investigation of mine.’
I tell her to shift herself over here. ‘And Cesca. That little hippy-dippy box of yours. Do you still have it?’
There’s a short pause, then, ‘You want me to bring you a joint?’
That High Rising Terminal. A generational thing.
‘No. Not one joint. Bring everything you’ve got. I’m not in a one-joint place right now.’
She says OK. Says it, enthusiastically enough that I can actually hear her leaping out of bed, starting to get organised.
I ring off.
Again, there’s a kind of joke here. Cesca thinks, ‘You’re a detective? You want me to bring you a joint? At four in the morning?’ And Fiona is irritable: ‘No, of course I don’t want one joint. I want to smoke until I fall over.’ That’s clearly not the way His Majesty’s Constabulary is meant to behave.
But alongside that joke, the passage delivers a reward. You’re saying, “You are a proper, loyal, committed reader, so I know that you do in fact remember that hippy-dippy Indian box. And I have created and gift-wrapped this little incident especially for you. I could have procured a joint from pretty much anywhere, but I did it this way because I knew you would particularly relish this way of doing things. Thank you.”
These tiny little episodes have the quality of a conversation directly between author and reader, a conversation that the character herself is not really part of.
I don’t think these things make all the difference. They certainly don’t make or break a book. But I know that as a reader, I relish such things. And as a writer, I love creating them. Little buried sweetmeats, ones that only the right sort of reader can enjoy.
Go well. And have a bonbon.