Cold Storage, Alaska

Cold Storage, Alaska
Title: Cold Storage, Alaska
Author: John Straley
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Alaska

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?Cold Storage, Alaska

Two brothers – one a hero, one a criminal – are reunited in their sleepy Alaskan hometown, where fishing, gossip and hanging out at the community centre are the most popular activities. When Clive’s drug-dealing past threatens to catch up with him, town life is turned upside down – but ultimately, in this beautifully drawn novel, the poetry in people’s souls wins over evil.

What did I find out?

One of the novel’s sub-plots features Billy, a resident of Cold Storage, who decides to kayak from Alaska to Seattle to see the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the city. Without wishing to give too much away, he ends up on a cruise ship – and this is where I learned that cruise ships have librarians!

As a former librarian myself, this was fascinating: in all my years in employment I never saw a job ad for a cruise librarian. It’s not enough to tempt me back into the field – I’m happier out of an office, and I’ve never fancied going on a cruise even as a passenger – and I’m also aware that this year’s Book Diaries are meant to be about taking inspiration for my writing.

So, what I will take from this is the realisation that there are many potential audiences for a book that we writers may not even be aware of when we are writing. One of my jobs if/when my book is finally published will be to think laterally and see what alternative audiences I can come up with for my own.

What do I now see differently?

One of the joys of this book was the way in which even hardened criminals demonstrate that they have poetry in their souls. Clive’s former drug lord boss, Jake, has a ‘second life’ in which he (usually unsuccessfully) writes screenplays for Hollywood; and a wonderful storyline sees him offering writing advice to one of Cold Storage’s indigenous (Tlingit) residents, Lester.

In particular, Jake talks about the importance of the story arc, explaining the difference between plot and story: ‘what happens in the film’ is not necessarily the same as ‘what the film is about’. I was already aware of this, but it was interesting to have a reminder, especially with the example that Jake gives: that of Jurassic Park.

Lester thinks that Jurassic Park is about humans realising they shouldn’t mess with nature, but Jake explains that it is actually about a man realising that he doesn’t hate kids but, actually, rather likes them. The story, in other words, is about a personal journey.

This is something I’m trying very hard to practise as I write my novel. I think I’ve got my main character’s journey figured out – but it certainly helps to have reminders like this along the way.

How will this inspire my writing?

Funnily enough, I’ve already implemented this week’s change!

If you received my February newsletter*, you may remember that the ‘idea’ I shared this month was about potentially featuring a supernatural cat in my novel. My first iteration of the idea involved giving my protagonist a ghost cat as a pet: she ‘lives’ on her own, and I thought this could be a way of introducing her by means of dialogue (everyone who has a cat talks to it, right?), which would be more interesting than simply a stream of consciousness.

I’d put the idea to one side, thinking it was cute but maybe a bit of a cliche (single woman with a cat). Then, reading Cold Storage, Alaska, I came across (a) a character with a cat and (b) the concept of talking animals. While it didn’t exactly feel like a sign, it did bring the idea back to the forefront of my mind.

Yesterday, I had to write a scene that needed to go in for the sake of the plot, but (bearing in mind the above advice on story arcs) I knew it also had to make sense in a character’s personal journey. So, more as an experiment than anything, and certainly with no expectation that this scene would even last the distance, I started writing about a cat: not in the way I’d initially intended, but from a completely new angle. And, weirdly, it worked.

I now have a scene that not only introduces one of the main characters (who was, previously, woefully underdeveloped), but which also adds a new dimension to both the plot and the overall complexity of my invented world. And all without resorting to the cliche of ‘single woman with cat’. I call that a win.

*If you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, with insights into where I get my ideas from, sign up here.

A musical interlude

This time it was Anchorage by Michelle Shocked that sprang to mind. Although the song is not about murderous drug dealers, and comes at its subject from a female perspective rather than a male one, the theme of reconnection with someone in a remote part of the world is one that feels very relevant to Cold Storage, Alaska.

Due to the privacy settings on the video of Anchorage, I can’t embed it in this web page, but you can view it on Vimeo.

A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet

Title: A Study in ScarletBook Challenge
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Publication date: 1887
Genre: Crime fiction

What’s it about?A Study in Scarlet

This is the first story to feature Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective. He takes up rooms with John Watson, former army doctor, and Watson finds himself drawn into Holmes’s unusual world of crime and deduction.

A body is found in an empty house. The crime scene has thrown up a number of odd features, which may be clues… or distractions. The police are stumped, and call on Holmes to help them out: which, naturally, he does with aplomb.

Heading down tracks the police can’t even perceive, he solves the crime within a short space of time, and then merely waits for further events to fall into place so that he can locate and catch the murderer. It is a virtuoso performance.

The action begins in Baker Street, and later takes off to the plains of Utah to pursue the back story of the murderer and his victims, before returning to London for the conclusion.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

When I first quit my job to go freelance, I took some time off before starting self employment in earnest. During that initial ‘defrosting’ time, one of the things I treated myself to was to reread the entire Sherlock Holmes oeuvre – and so I downloaded and now possess the entire works on my Kindle app.

I should say that I feel the time must shortly come when I will need to possess them all in hard copy too…

What did I learn from it?

I learned that my brain isn’t as tired and sludgy as it sometimes feels. I actually spotted not one but two elements of the plot that didn’t quite hang together – which, for a Sherlock Holmes story, is quite something. In fact, I’ve almost convinced myself that I must have missed something – so I’ll tell you what I found, and you can tell me if I’m trying to be over-clever.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Firstly, Sherlock’s insistence that the cabbie won’t be suspicious when Sherlock summons him under the pretence of hiring his cab is surely misguided. It comes hot on the heels of the advertisement regarding the finding of the ring; although the name given in the advert is that of Watson, the address is the same. Surely a second request from the same address would ring bells with someone trying to remain undetected?

Secondly, I wasn’t convinced by the murderer’s modus operandi, i.e. forcing his victim to choose one of the pills and taking the other himself. This had a 50-50 chance of killing the murderer, and I find it difficult to believe that someone who has sought vengeance for 20 years would, at the last minute, allow his victim the chance of escape. Even though we’re made aware that the murderer had an aneurysm that could kill him at any moment, it still doesn’t quite ring true for me.

So what do you think? Have I missed something that explains these oddities, or are there indeed plot holes in this story of the great detective?

How did it make me see the world differently?

It reminded me of the importance of really taking notice of what is going on around me. Although I’m not in the business of solving crimes, I do love solving general problems; as an ex-librarian, looking things up and finding things out is second nature to me. However, I’m often rubbish at noticing the little random details.

Example: the film ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ features Rhys Ifans as one-armed scientist Dr Curt Connors. About two-thirds of the way through the film, I said to my husband, ‘Oh! When did he lose his arm?!’

I probably follow Sherlock’s example by only stocking my brain with things that I deem to be useful to me; although (a) that doesn’t explain the above; and (b) I don’t quite go to his extremes: I do know that the Earth moves around the Sun… I think… But, unlike him, as my business is not that of figuring out human behaviour, I’m not in the habit of trying to deduce personal circumstances from small details of dress or presentation.

The Sherlock Holmes stories remind me that, even though I’m not a detective, observing the minutiae of daily life can still be fascinating and richly informative. Not to mention helpful when following a film…

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’d like to say I’ll make more of an effort to notice the little things from now on; but I know myself well enough to be pretty confident that, in this area, I can’t see myself changing much. It’s a sad admission, but at least I have the virtue of self knowledge.

What I can do, however, is to give myself actual practice at ‘thinking like Sherlock’. I was given a book for Christmas a couple of years back, How to Think Like Sherlock: Improve Your Powers of Observation, Memory and Deduction, which includes exercises, tests and games. I dipped into this, but now I think the time has come to give myself some ‘brain training’ and see if I can improve my mental faculties.

And if I have indeed spotted holes in the plot of A Study in Scarlet, then maybe I’m not as far off achieving this as I’d thought…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!