(This is a piece that appeared on the Crime Cymru website’s blog on 5th August, 2022. If you’d like to see similar posts from other Crime Cymru authors, go to the ‘blog’ tab on the website and select ‘topics’. )
This year’s winner of both the Gold Dagger and the Historical Dagger at the Crime Writers’ Association awards was the fourth in Ray Celestin’s City Blues quartet, Sunset Swing. Ahead of the awards I’d not read any of the other shortlisted writers (my own most recent novel Not One Of Us was on the shortlist) but when Ray Celestin rather swept the board, I decided that I’d better check his work out.
I discovered that each book in the quartet is written using Oulipo (ouvroir de litterature potentielle) constraints. The theory is that imposing constraints on our writing triggers ideas and inspiration, though a rather more cynical view from one commentator described the technique as ‘rats constructing the maze from which they plan to escape.’
The constraints Ray Celestin chose for the City Blues quartet result in each of the four novels being based around a different city, decade, season, weather, song and theme.
It sounds contrived at first, but when I thought about it, I realised that the way I structure my own books is not too dissimilar. Each book in my Teifi Valley Coroner series is based in a very particular location and each has a historical event or theme as its starting point. Like most crime fiction, the plots of my books take place over no more than a couple of weeks in a particular season, and, being set in Britain, the weather tends to feature. All my books are missing is the song.
Writers choosing to use Oulipo pay particular attention to the elements of the maze they’ve built themselves and use it rather more constructively than as simple background. And I do the same. Whenever I appear at festivals or at bookshop or library events, somebody will inevitably ask why I chose to set my books in west Wales. (It will be interesting to see whether I get asked why I’ve chosen to set my new series in Oxford, but that’s another story…) And the answer is, because that’s the only place these particular stories could have happened. My books aren’t set in nineteenth century Cardiganshire because it’s picturesque, they’re set there because I’m fascinated by the lives of people in that particular place, at that particular time. The plots of my books are entirely shaped by contemporary events, beliefs and preoccupations. And so are my characters.
But Oulipo-inspired or not, historically-inspired or not, all good novels should pay attention to the constraints within which they’re written. Why is the novel set where it is? Does the time period affect the plot or character? What does the underlying theme add to the book?
Those are what you might call top-level considerations, elements which are at the heart of the book and its inspiration. For my Teifi Valley Coroner books they include historical events like the Rebecca Riots, the consequences of which still resonate in Wales now, or industrialisation versus agriculture which is a topic the contemporary world is having to grapple with, as we face enormous changes in our lives due to the climate emergency.
But other bits of Ray Celestin’s maze – the season, weather – can contribute equally to a book, and not simply as world-building background. Take rain for example. In mid-nineteenth century west Wales, when rapid travel meant riding around on horseback, rain wasn’t just a nuisance, it could fundamentally affect the way your day unfolded. Sitting in the saddle while rain buckets down is a very dispiriting experience; a rider gets cold and wet, their hands slip on the reins, the horse can get grouchy because the rider’s touch on the bit has become clumsy. On dismounting, unless it’s done under cover, the saddle’s going to get wet, adding to the rider’s misery when they get back on the horse. If my main protagonists, Harry Prober-Lloyd and John Davies, arrive at their destination well-rested, warm and ready for action, they’re likely to respond very differently to recalcitrant or obfuscatory testimony than if they’ve arrived cold and wet. And each reaction to the characters they meet affects the plot: if witnesses feel mistrusted, or slighted, they won’t co-operate as willingly as they might otherwise do. Vital pieces of evidence won’t get shared, and suspicions won’t necessarily be aired. Each reaction sparks another and the plot develops.
What the Oulipo method teaches us is that the warp and weft of a crime novel isn’t just interesting background. It matters when and where things happen, what the weather’s like and how we respond to music, because we’re all just reacting to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, our characters included. The trick is to build your maze with precisely as much detail as your characters and plot require and no more. Get that trick right and your novel will sing, even if it has no songs in it.