A Place for Product Placement

I’ve been quite lucky that in the twelve months Shadow Beast has been out, the worst review it has received has been three stars, with comments varying from a simple ‘okay read’ to another which gave away the twist and ending. 76% of the reviews give it a five star rating, with another 18% giving it the four star treatment.

Any author should be pleased with that kind of impact and feedback from readers who have put their money down, especially after nearly a year on the market.

However, a latest comment in a review did at least make me chuckle, and I took a little time to consider it. They weren’t very happy with the product placement in the writing. I also suspect he may have been a Land Rover enthusiast, as he took some umbrage that I referred to Thomas’s modified Defender as an Overfinch rather than a ‘Rover’ or ‘Landie’.

It is of course impossible to please all of the people all of the time, and I don’t intend to try, but I thought I would take a little time to talk about product naming and usage in writing generally, and in my own.

First of all, when a self-published author like myself names or uses real life brands and products in their books, it is very unlikely to actually be product placement, where a company has paid for its inclusion. That said, should Rolex be wondering which of their watches Thomas wears, and if they would like me to wear it as an endorsement, it’s this one, but with a leather strap.

Naming a product can have several purposes and uses to a writer. I use it specifically in three ways in the most part. Firstly, I use it to tell the reader something about the character. By associating a character with certain brands, I can provide you with an essence of their personal tastes, financial status, and even possibly things like age, gender and background, and normally in under three words. It can be very useful to set a scene, especially at the beginning of a story.

This is something that one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming, constantly did. From providing his hero with a shiny Aston Martin DB4 in Goldfinger (you read that correctly, it was in the film that it became the eponymous DB5 we all know and love), to his Rolex (now Omega), the purpose was always to suggest Bond’s swagger by way of his swag.

Secondly, a specific piece of equipment is usually most easily described by its brand and model. I agree that you probably don’t need to know the serial number, but by letting you know that Thomas is using Leica binoculars or shoots a Holland & Holland .465 bolt action rifle, it should help the reader visualise it easier – or in the case of the gun, give you an idea of its power. I don’t see much point in going to great lengths descriptively when naming the product does everything I need it to do.

Another of my favourite authors, Michael Crichton, used this in his writing often. He would always go to great lengths to describe scientific apparatus, surveillance equipment and other items down to the model number. Sometimes I would look them up, sometimes I knew what they were, but I always had the visual reference. Clive Cussler is somebody else who is very fond of mentioning the exact make and model of cars, planes and weapon favoured by Dirk Pitt, his own hero.

Thirdly, by using a real product or brand, it can help reduce word repeats. It provides another option descriptively on top of common adjectives.

There is of course the obvious reason too. It’s always a little bit of wish fulfilment. Authors tend to give their characters the things they’d like to have, from simple attributes to sharp suits and expensive cars.

I know it isn’t always to everyone’s taste, but product naming and use does have a place. In the case of at least a few, it was my editor who asked my to specify brands for the reasons above.

Feedback also has its place, and I’ll certainly keep all of the kind comments and constructive criticism Shadow Beast has attracted as I prepare the sequel, The Daughters of the Darkness. Some, like my recent reviewer may be pleased to hear he’s ditched the Overfinch. I’ve given him a Twisted tuned Defender pick-up instead!

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Books to Bark About

Well it’s National Dog Day, and as a reader I have always been pulled in by stories that featured canine characters, whether good or bad. The Call of the Wild has already featured on this blog as one of my favourite books of all time, so some of you will already know I’m a little barking about this kind of thing. So much so, that now I’m a writer, you’ll always be able to find a dog in my own stories. So in order to truly bring these two things together, let’s look at some of the literary canines that leap off my bookshelf.

Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild is my comfort book. The one I turn to when I need to feel warm and cosy on the inside, especially if it’s the opposite outside. This book is basically apple pie to me. Well, at least when there’s no apple pie.

The main character in Call of the Wild is Buck, a cross between a St Bernard and a sheepdog. I’ve always imagined him as looking something a little like a modern-day leonberger.

Buck is kidnapped from his comfortable home and sold to a trader, finding himself in the barren and unforgiving landscape of the North during the gold rush. He finds adversaries in dogs and people alike, with his trials eventually awakening something primal in his spirit, but not before he bonds with a man who shows him true love. Torn between instinct and loyalty, Buck moonlights between two worlds until tragedy intervenes and makes the choice for him.

Thor

Thor. And I don’t mean the guy with the hammer. I mean a German Shepherd, a loyal family dog at the centre of Wayne Smith’s novel of the same name.

Thor is very protective of his family, and in the past it has landed him and them in trouble. But when something supernatural and savage enters their world, it is first only Thor who can see it. Although his human pack are unaware of his taste for wild rabbit, it soon becomes clear that he is not the only blood thirsty predator in their midst. As the threat draws closer, Thor sets out to protect them at all costs.

Eventually made into the film ‘Bad Moon’, which was also pretty good!

Plague Dogs

No list of anphropomorphic tales would be complete without at least one Richard Adams novel, so enter the Plague Dogs. The story of Rowf and Snitter, an old black labrador and a fox terrier who escape from a research laboratory, is something really quite special.

Adams’s unique story telling style forces us to see the dogs in the story as people and the humans as animals, something made abundantly clear when we discover what Rowf and Snitter have been exposed to.

Not exactly a feel good story, but still somehow a beautiful one.

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Fang and Fluffy. Two of the best misnamed dogs in all literature. Fang is a coward, who runs away at the first sign of danger despite being a Neapolitan Mastiff, whilst Fluffy is a three-headed, ferocious cerberus of gigantic size! And both are encountered within the pages of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Both are also owned by Hagrid, the half-giant grounds keeper with a penchant for dangerous animals.

Hagrid is my kind of guy!

CujoAnd of course, not all doggy characters are good guys. In Cujo, the master of horror himself Stephen King takes the breed of dog known for saving lives and outstanding loyalty, the St Bernard, and turns it into 200lbs of terror.

When Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat, he too soon falls victim to the disease with no cure. As his senses and sanity are ravaged by the deadly virus, so Cujo turns on the inhabitants of a sleepy, backwater town with similarly savage results.

Arguably the most famous canine villain of all time though can be found within theHound pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The large and deadly dog is never fully identified beyond being of ‘mastiff’ type, but that doesn’t stop it killing two people during the course of the story.

The tale was in fact based on legends Sir Arthur heard whilst staying on Dartmoor, centred around a phantom squire and his pack of hellhounds, said to be heard baying when the moon was full and the night was clear.

Sherlock Holmes and a creature feature. What’s not to like!

I could of course mention many more. From the rough collie of Lassie Come Home, Pongo and Missus of 101 Dalmatians, Montmorency of Three Men In a Boat, Toto of Wizard of Oz, or even the haphazard Afghan pup what-a-mess, dogs are a firm favourite when it comes to books, and certainly in my library at least.

So it shouldn’t really be a surprise to find not one, but several dogs in my own book, Shadow Beast. The first and most prominent is Meg, a three-legged Border Collie who lives with Thomas Walker, my protagonist. Like most dogs, Meg has probably helped her owner stay sane and been there for him in moments of loneliness. She also saves his life later on in the story. You’ll also find a team of fearsome hunting dogs, and a pack of hounds to boot. But don’t be alarmed if you’re not a dog person, there’s also a cat in it too 😉 And it’s a big one.

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The Legend of One-Eye

When Peter Benchley wrote Jaws, he had no idea that he had literally created a monster. Not only did it become one of the biggest selling novels of all time, but it was made into a movie that became the first ever summer blockbuster, setting the trend ever since. What is interesting is that later on, Benchley became a committed advocate for shark conservancy, and stated that he would not be able to write Jaws based on what he had discovered about them since he first put pen to paper.

It’s important to realise that fiction is exactly that, fiction! Benchley also stated that he was no more responsible for people’s attitudes to sharks than Mario Puzo was for the mafia. Sharks do after all eat people, as do other things, whether we like it or not! In the real world man is the real monster, responsible for far more bloodshed and cruelty. But in our imaginations at least, nature has always been queen when it comes to our most primal of nightmares.

In Shadow Beast, another monstrous animal is at the heart of the story, as is my love of the Highlands and its amazing wildlife, including the endemic and endangered Scottish wildcat.

In the book you’ll find themes of conservation and re-wilding, but I wanted to do more than simply put these topics out there. I wanted to get behind them too. So with that in mind, I’ll be donating 15% of my February book sale profits to Wildcat Haven and the Save the Scottish Wildcat campaign. More details about their work can be found at http://www.scottishwildcats.co.uk

At the same time, I wanted to celebrate their work with some of my own, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore the origins of a character who makes a legendary entrance in the book. One-Eyed Tom, the wildcat.

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The Legend of One-Eye

The world around him was bathed in the sepia glow of a night-long twilight only his eyes could see. Two silent bounds took him to the edge of the stream, where a flick of his paw fished the unsuspecting frog from the water. There was no pause to play or pounce tonight, and he crunched and gobbled down the still wriggling amphibian in quick, successive bites. Every sense was on heightened alert. Even as he ate, he glanced with furious purpose in the direction of every sound his pricked ears caught.

He moved off, checking his path and surroundings every few steps. He stopped at a favoured mound of brown, dead heather to scent mark the border of his territory that ran along the stream. His face crumpled into a silent snarl. An intruder had crossed the path and left their own musk lacing the crumbly soil. The big tom sprayed the area liberally with urine, then meticulously rubbed the heather and ground with the scent glands in his cheeks. He scraped the damp ground into a mush with his back feet and continued on his path.

The piercing, single scream made him stop in his tracks. His head snapped to a path to the left, heading deeper into his territory. He knew the rabbit warren that the path led to, and he now realised the purpose behind the intruder’s insurrection. Such blatant disregard to his presence and home could not be tolerated. He turned onto the path, hunkering down as he made his way along it with silent, shadowy focus.

The sandy soil veiled his approach by absorbing his footfalls in noiseless padding. He approached the ridgeline and paused at its top. This was where he normally watched and waited for the rabbits to emerge into the dust-bowl clearing in front of him. The slight elevation and cover of the heather-lined ridgeline was the perfect ambush site. He could see where the intruder had launched from the same spot, and his eyes searched him out, knowing he was close.

His hardened stare came to rest on a crouched silhouette on the far side of the clearing. As the hairs in his ears fluffed and expanded to elevate his hearing even further, he picked up the sound of crunching, crushing teeth. Then the wind changed direction, and a cool breeze brought the scent of death and the younger cat to him.

He yowled his intent, unable to contain his rage any longer. He barrelled forward, growling and hissing as he covered the ground in rapid, rippling steps. His snarl was answered by a quivering, spitting growl of savagery. His adversary stepped out into the moonlight, boldly meeting his gaze. But the big tom could sense the hesitancy, reflected in the curve of the newcomer’s back and by the way he half-sat on his rear haunches.

The big tom growled, flicking his tail back and forth in a maddened fury against the ground. The yowl in his throat built to a scream. The younger, smaller male answered with his own caterwaul of threat. The two wildcats stood almost nose to nose, their fur bristling on end and their muscles taught and ready for combat. Each stared into the mirrored savagery before them. The time had come.

In a sudden moment of doubt, the young cat tried to dash past his adversary, but the big tom was too quick. He rammed the off-balance intruder with his shoulder and a butt of his head, his rear paws lifting off the ground as he rippled into a pounce that sent four sets of extended claws and his flashing fangs through the fur and flesh of his screaming opponent.

The younger cat didn’t hesitate to answer the assault, clasping the tom’s head in the vice-like embrace of its front claws. As the big tom punched and pawed repeatedly at the intruder’s back and stomach, his adversary twisted round and clamped his jaws over his muzzle, now in a position to also slash away at the exposed flank of the big tom with his hind paws.

They clung to each other, growling, hissing and snarling through a pain that only fuelled their fury. But a lucky scrape of the young cat’s hind leg sent the big tom spinning backwards, releasing the intruder from his fangs. The young male raced to the ridge and sank into its shadow, pausing at the top to glance and glower at the one whose territory it had invaded. The older cat had already turned his back, knowing he had won the fight. He now nosed at the dead rabbit, ready to claim his prize as victor. The intruder was overcome with renewed fury, and launched into the air, his front claws reaching out for a deadly embrace. The big tom whipped round in a fearsome frenzy, saw his opportunity, and leapt too. His fangs found the throat of the young cat and he used his bulk and might to bring him to the ground. The intruder writhed in silent revolt as the pressure on his larynx strangled the life from him. His forepaws and claws rained flailing blows on his killer’s head, but it was to no avail. A last, limp cuff slashed across the big tom’s left eye as the young cat’s world went black.

The wildcat grimaced and spat, rolling in the dirt with the pain. He screamed in fury, searching out the path by feel as he howled his way back to the stream, blinded by his blood and rage. The big tom slapped and sucked at the water, ducking his head under as he occasionally did to fish. After some time, the pain began to ebb, and he wandered away towards a favoured hollow to rest.

The creature slunk into the clearing and nosed the dead rabbit, before slumping down onto the sandy soil beside it. It casually skinned its meal with a few gentle tugs of its jaws, and it swallowed the meagre mouthfuls of meat it provided. It rose again and padded over to the dead wild cat, a distrustful growl rumbling in its throat. It had come across the smaller cats before as a youngling and knew their savagery and flickering charge all too well. It knew better than to tolerate their presence. It picked up the dead wildcat in its jaws and disappeared back into the shadow of the waiting forest.

~

If you haven’t bought a copy of Shadow Beast on Kindle or in paperback, now you can get a great book and help what is very likely the most endangered cat in the world at the same time! Click on the link below to get your copy today!

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Making The Write Connection with a Character

Like most new authors I imagine, I go a little bit crazy towards the end of the day. I diligently start checking each of my channels, not just for sales reports but also for reviews! It’s almost becoming a little routine. That little check before bed to see if someone has said something nice about the years, months and hours of work you’ve offered up to the world. If they have, my reaction tends to be a strange dance that suggests I’ve been shot in the leg, followed by several screeches of excitement and a scurry across the room to fetch my phone to share said review on social media. I haven’t had a bad one yet, but odds are it might get exactly the same reaction.

I happened across my latest review on GoodReads yesterday and got excited for two very different reasons. Firstly, it was from somebody on a different continent to me, and secondly, they had nicknamed the heroine in my story Catherine, Kat. I was genuinely touched that a reader had felt so close to the character they had adopted a nickname for her that wasn’t used in the book!

I spent a lot of time developing three main characters in Shadow Beast, namely Thomas, Catherine and Fairbanks. These three came under the microscope the most, well other than the elusive creature itself, who didn’t get a profile but lots of notes on behavior and temperament! I used very detailed questionnaires and profiles to build a picture of them in my head. I also cast them as actors, as if I were making a film. That helped give me an idea of what they looked like, as well as who they were.

I’m not going to tell you who I had in mind when I created Catherine for the same reason I haven’t included a picture of some random redhead here as a reference – I want you to meet her for yourself so you can form your own idea. But I will tell you a little bit about her.

Firstly, it was important to me that she wasn’t just a scream-queen. She needed to be an equal to Thomas, certainly as strong-willed and as strong-minded if she was going to stand up to swap insults and arguments with him. She had to be sharp and intelligent. She is a self-made woman who has fought through a lot in life, from bad treatment at the hands of her employers to being used by a callous colleague in an ill-fated affair. She’s tough, firm, kind and downright lovely.

Shaping her helped shape the story too. At first, I had her driving a beaten up Alfa Romeo estate car, simply because I like Alfas. But it soon became clear that the practical nature of her work and who she was suited something a bit more robust, so she was upgraded to a truck with four-wheel drive. At the same time, realising she was young and single in a small village made it obvious that she would be friends with another character in similar circumstances. Making them friends helped change the emotive feel of a key chapter in the book to something far more dramatic and gripping.

And yeah, she’s just a little bit gorgeous too. Red hair and green eyes. Sigh. Even in real life its pretty much my kryptonite. But that was important too. I had to really feel something for Catherine if I was going to get the emotion, passion and intrigue I wanted into the story. And going on my latest review at least, it seems to have worked.

And remember, if you do take a chance on an independently published book and enjoy it, the best way you can say thank you to the author is to leave a review on Amazon, GoodReads and so forth to help share and spread the joy. It really does tickle us to know our stories are being read and liked!

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