Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Name In The Newspaper

By Jay Stringer

Last week Dave called for writers to talk more keenly about where we get our ideas from.

Well, I'll step up to the plate. My book Runaway Town comes out in just under two months. If you read any of my interviews or blogs around the time of the first book Old Gold you'll know I have a few things to say about the West Midlands. Part of my self imposed mission statement for the Miller series is to open up the region to fresh eyes, and to look at the social issues that are eating away at the towns and people I love.

I read a lot of the local newspapers, even from hundreds of miles away in Scotland, and daily I see things that would seem too unrealistic for me to put into a novel. Part of the job, when you're writing books like these, is often to make reality seem more realistic. These news stories -of peoples lives and deaths, of things that have been taken from them or gifted to them- give me little sparks of character to pepper my stories. But they don't give me the issues. It takes something a little bigger to give me that.

I was back in the Midlands visiting family over Christmas and I saw a news headline that turned my stomach. Army take-up highest in UK, it declared. The story opened;

Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Stoke...fill the top 3 places of the 'league table' of the UK's 134 Army and Forces recruitment offices.
Old Gold and Runaway Town take place mostly in Wolverhampton. Stoke is a forty minute drive to the north and Birmingham features in the third book (title redacted.) But more than that, these are the places I know. Long before there were Miller books, these were the places I was seeing that made me want to write books.

The article talks in patriotic terms. It frames the story as a positive fluff piece.

These results are genuinely impressive. More than, for example, Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool or Glasgow.
In times like these it's easy to hide the news behind such sentiment. If you don't have anything nice to say, find a nice way to say something bad. I'm no cosy pacifist, and I've known as many people who've gone into the army to fulfil ambition as for any other reason, but I'm not inclined to be led so easily from the real issues at play here.

You want a clear indication of the places in our countries that are falling the farthest behind? The people under our own flags that we are failing the most? Read the news reports and obituaries of the men and women who die in the armed services. Read the names of the towns, villages and cities that they come from. Count how many times you see a place name that you've not heard of, or a region that you can't place. These names in the papers are the calls for help of everyone being left behind in the modern era. "The current financial climate," or whatever fancy phrase you want to use, may have started to bite all of us, but there are people and places for whom this is old news. They've simply been waiting for everyone else to catch up.

To look at the "genuinely impressive" enlistment figures for Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Stoke, is to look at lists of people who have no other options, and to look at a list of teenagers who have been so let down as to think enlisting to be shot at in foreign countries is the best way to earn a living and see the world.

There are other direct correlations. More recent news stories on that same news site talk about 20% job cuts in the Wolverhampton library staff. We take away the books and wonder why people don't read? Or a story about a hospital being fined thousands of pounds for not completing improvement work that it couldn't afford. Digging a little deeper I find that -as of the month before that initial news story- 11.5 % of 16-24 year olds were claiming unemployment benefit. 11.5%. And this doesn't point to which of the remaining percentage are only kept out of those figures by virtue of being in full-time education and running up un payable debts from the new tuition fees. That's also a percentage that naturally doesn't include the "genuinely impressive," amount of youths who have enlisted. All the slices of the pie are starting to add up to something very unhealthy. When you start to fill doorways with bricks, is it any wonder that more people go through the only remaining opening? And when riots break out, such as the summer before last, we all looked on in surprise. Some people in our own online crime fiction community posted comments that the rioters should be shot. I would ask, haven't we done that already? People with futures don't riot. And, with all due respect to the armed forces and the people in them for different reasons, regions with futures don't lead the 'league tables' for recruitment.

But the juice for the storyteller isn't just that these stories exist. No. It's that the people who should be telling them -the newspapers- instead want to tell us how great this news is. Once you spot such a large disconnect between what's being said and what's actually happening, the stories start to tell themselves.

So the question isn't really, "where do you get your ideas from," it's, "how can you not write?"

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