Guest Blog: Ben Aaronovitch -The Gumbo School of Writing

Today, I'd like to welcome Ben Aaronovitch, a fellow urban fantasy writer, who is the author of the fabulous Rivers of London(UK title, and if you haven't already guessed, it's set in London - my favourite city and home of! Yay!), and in case you're looking for Ben's book in the US, over there it goes under the title of Midnight Riot!

Ben's books star Detective Constable Peter Grant, and his second book Moon Over Sohois already out in the US, and comes out in the UK21st April.

Now despite the fact Ben writes so fast (which turns me green with envy, and automatically makes me want to poke him with sharp sticks) he's a lovely chap, and a brilliant writer (gives Ben the evil eye and keeps sharpening), and he's here today to tell us about . . .

The Gumbo School of Writing Technique*

One of the questions I keep getting asked whether I plan my books out in detail or whether I just start writing on page one and hope it all works out in the end. Are you a planster or an impster? A cunning index card merchant or a reckless white page surfer? The answer to all these questions is of course – yes. Which I admit is not all that helpful.

Since people seem interested in this question I decided it was time to invent metaphor to describe my writing technique and then stretch it to breaking point. So in answer to the question – are you a synopsis control freak or a promiscuous keyboard banger? I now answer; neither – I’m a gumboist.

The first thing about a gumbo, be it Creole or Cajun or something you made up in Wimbledon from a vague memory of a holiday to Louisiana you went on last year, is that you know roughly what the basics are. You got your stock, your meat or shellfish and you veggies.

Likewise going into a book I generally know what my base is; in Rivers/Midnight it was riots, rivers, theatre and a certain well known British seaside attraction(1) while for Moon Over Soho it was jazz, the history of Soho and sex. Once you have your basic ingredients in the pot your ready to go. But it’s still possible to have the highest quality ingredients and still end up with indigestible mess so you can’t relax yet.

Next is the thickener; now in a gumbo you can have okra or your file powder or your roux but in your novel it’s the mode of address. Now some people like the cool and fruity godlike narrator who, like Stephen Fry, looks down upon us all, some like a thrills and spills of the multiple third person viewpoint leaping like a disaster movie from character to character while others like the immersive stickiness of the first person. A brave few whose confidence in tense is greater then mine opt for weird second person present tense combos – good luck to them.

Up until Rivers/Midnight I’d always favoured a nice tight over the shoulder third person but for my first venture out of tie-in novels I chose first person. It’s Peter Grant’s particular way of speaking that gives his books there unmistakable London tang. No matter that some people get vexed by his grammar me and Peter don’t give a toss.

So we’ve got our base and we’ve got our thickener but truth be told right now all we’ve got is a lot of stuff in a pot. Now we turn on the heat and start stirring and that’s basically me sitting down in front of the computer and typing… yeah(2). Moving on.

Now the gumbo is cooking and we get to the bit that, hopefully, separates the grown ups from the squidlings. While the gumbo simmers you add the rest of the ingredients on the fly and to taste.

Now a writer’s brain is a storehouse of stuff, most of it apparently useless, but like a lazy cook on Sunday morning sometimes you can whip something fabulous with just what you’ve got lying around your head. Much of the old time religion that went into River/Midnight came from research I’d done years ago, as did much of the Theatre stuff and the detailed descriptions of Covent Garden came from the fact that I was working in Covent Garden at the time.

But often times what you got lying around isn’t going to be enough. You’re stirring and heating and adding stuff and suddenly your realise there’s something missing and if your gumbo is going to rise above the level of ‘a soup with okra in it’ then you’re going to have to get out there and perform a RAFE manoeuvre. This is the Rapid Acquisition of Faux Expertise which does just what it sounds like it does. A good example is my scramble to RAFE the Royal Opera House once I’d got to Chapter 7 and realised that the action sequence I’d envisioned taking place at the Palace Theatre during a performance of ‘The Matrix: the Musical’ was forced by all sorts of spoilerish reasons to relocate.

An alternative to RAFE is to make use of the expertise of friends and family. I drew heavily on my friend Andrew Cartmel’s obsessive knowledge of jazz music for both Peter’s dad’s background and for the music in Moon Over Soho.

So that’s how I write a book – like I’d make a gumbo, if I was any kind of cook or liked shellfish, or okra for that matter. Anyone can do it providing you have the right ingredients and a certain amount of confidence in your sense of taste.

Ben Aaronovitch

(1) Amazingly there are some people in the world who haven’t read me book yet and I don’t want to spoil it.
(2) Sigh. Metaphors - they never stretch as far as you think they will.

Thanks so much for guest blogging, Ben!

Feel free to leave any questions or comments for Ben, and I'll get the sticks out give him a shout to come and answer :-)

*Now I'm hoping some of his writing speed will rub off on me - or it's back to being the green-eyed monster and sharpening those sticks again . . . 

Here's the blurb for Rivers of London(UK)/Midnight Riot(US)!

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden . . . and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying. 

Here's the blurb for Moon Over Soho (US) (UK)!

I was my dad's vinyl-wallah: I changed his records while he lounged around drinking tea, and that's how I know my Argo from my Tempo. And it's why, when Dr Walid called me to the morgue to listen to a corpse, I recognised the tune it was playing. Something violently supernatural had happened to the victim, strong enough to leave its imprint like a wax cylinder recording. Cyrus Wilkinson, part-time jazz saxophonist and full-time accountant, had apparently dropped dead of a heart attack just after finishing a gig in a Soho jazz club. He wasn't the first. No one was going to let me exhume corpses to see if they were playing my tune, so it was back to old-fashioned legwork, starting in Soho, the heart of the scene. I didn't trust the lovely Simone, Cyrus' ex-lover, professional jazz kitten and as inviting as a Rubens' portrait, but I needed her help: there were monsters stalking Soho, creatures feeding off that special gift that separates the great musician from someone who can raise a decent tune. What they take is beauty. What they leave behind is sickness, failure and broken lives. And as I hunted them, my investigation got tangled up in another story: a brilliant trumpet player, Richard 'Lord' Grant - my father - who managed to destroy his own career, twice. That's the thing about policing: most of the time you're doing it to maintain public order. Occasionally you're doing it for justice. And maybe once in a career, you're doing it for revenge. 

Visit Ben's website and blog
Find him on Twitter @Ben_Aaronovitch


Charmaine Clancy said...

I think I learnt something, but I'm too hungry to focus. Mmmm Gumbo. :)

LauraJ said...

I recommend both books wholeheartedly (and if you know me, rather often...). Serious matters dealt with seriously by a basically light-hearted, good-hearted interesting and intelligent person (who is, moreover, male, talented, and a more interesting ethnicity than I am). His friends and colleagues are worthy of his interest and affection (or fear. He's not dumb).

Suzanne McLeod said...

Charmaine: *nods* It's always fascinating to see how other writers, write. And I'm with you on the gumbo *g*. Thanks for dropping by and reading :-)

Laura: Ben's a fab writer, and I'm with you all the way with DC Peter Grant. Thanks for dropping by and reading :-)

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