Stories People Tell – Sample chapters

Catch a glimpse of the new cover of Stories People Tell and read four sample chapters here. On sale early 2018.

Stories People Tell

Annie, a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, gets swept up in a grassroots movement offering support and healthcare to gay women. They bear the brunt of homophobic attacks from Nolan Kard, Lord Mayor of London. Rich entrepreneur turned politician, he is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, tasteless humour and widespread influence are undermining the country’s institutions. In the struggle to end violence against women,  Annie discovers she has talents she couldn’t have imagined. In so doing, she becomes the number one target of Kard and his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghostwriters that are a nightmare for his enemies.

Video: Jake on the verge of flight

Extract People of the Forest

Jake on the verge of flight. This reading from the draft 1st chapter of People of the Forest by its author, Alan McCluskey, was filmed in the forest which inspired the novel. The forest is situated in the hills above the village where the author lives in Switzerland. In this extract, Jake, in thinking of the forest, says; There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. There are several such places in the forests of Neuchâtel, but this setting is one of the most potent. It’s a joy to sit there just listening to the silence that rises and falls beyond the twittering birds, the squabbling squirrels and the wind rustling through the trees.  The full text of this extract can be found in The birth of a new novel. And more about the draft novel, including other extracts, can be found here.

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Video: Isla and the boy she bit

Above is a video filmed in the forest that inspired the novel People of the Forest. In this clip, the author, Alan McCluskey, reads an extract from the second chapter of the draft book.  The text of the extract can be found here: …and what about the girl? And more about the draft novel, including extracts, can be found here.

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Jake and the challenge of a new language

I’m up to chapter 22, that’s 27,000 words, of People of the Forest. I make a point of halting each day in the forest during my long walks to write for half an hour seated on a rock surrounded by trees with only squirrels and the occasional roe deer for company.

But you will no doubt want to know about the story itself. If you have been reading the extracts you will know that Isla briefly met Jake before each of them was flung into the other’s world. In the extract below Jake is in Isla’s world having been rescued by a band of dissidents who live in the relative safety of the forest. He is not enamoured of their lifestyle and takes off alone into the nearby woods.

From a writing perspective, one of the challenges in this extract was to portray how Jake was able to understand a page of a book in a language he hardly knew and thus to offer a glimpse of the history of that world. Another challenge was the compression of time in an otherwise continuous narration.

Extracts

Jake half expected Kody to run after him, she did shout, but no one followed as he strode deeper into the forest. The sun’s rays were slanting closer to the horizon and his stomach growled. He swung his bag from his shoulder and slid the book inside before pulling out his hunting knife. Time to find something to eat.

The tinder was dry and the fire caught without a hitch. Soon,  the skinned and gutted rabbit was balanced over the red hot embers. The wild greens Jake had uncovered in a nearby glade would serve as an excellent salad. There was even a handful of blackberries for his desert.

He licked the meat juices from his fingers and popped the berries, one after another, into his mouth. Leaning back against his bag, he sigh with pleasure. The shadows were creeping between the trees. Time to prepare for the night. He would have preferred a cave, but finding none, he’d built his fire in the middle of a tight ring of saplings not far from a fast-running stream. He’d woven branches and ferns between the trunks forming a screen against inquisitive eyes.

The stream was surprisingly cold for a summer’s day, but Jake stripped off and had a thorough wash. Just because these people didn’t care about cleanliness, he wasn’t going to imitate them. His mother aways insisted that keeping clean was the key to a long and healthy life. He also rinsed his clothes and hung them out to dry on the lower branches inside his makeshift bower.

The screen he’d fashioned offered little resistance to the breeze that rose as the sun set. He shivered. Pulling a rain cape from his bag, he wrapped it around his shoulders and drew closer to the fire. Time to look at that book. He flicked through the pages eyeing the pictures in the firelight. Although many of the scenes made no sense, he gathered it was some sort of history book.

In one picture, a massive fleet of silver vehicles, like the one they’d stolen, was driving past a man on a raised platform saluting with an upraised hand. In another, a catastrophe must have struck because houses lay in ruin and the streets were littered with bodies. One picture depicted a child’s ankle with a flesh coloured bracelet around it. Had that been what the man was looking for when he rolled up Jake’s trouser legs?

Turning back to the beginning of the book, he tried to read the first and only paragraph which spanned most of the page. It was hard going. Few of the words were known to him. When he reached the end, despite having understood next to nothing, there was a familiarity about the words that intrigued him. He ran through the text again. If you replaced the soft ‘sh’ and ‘h’ and ‘ce’ with harder sounds like ‘tsh’ or ‘tch’ or ‘kk’ the similarity with his own language was striking. Reading it was like untying knots in his brain, although there was a trick to it.  You couldn’t force it. You had to let the knots unravel on their own.

He read the paragraph a third time, slowly, letting the spelling of words blur into his own language. To his amazement, the meaning of the text sprang out at him. It was a summary of the whole book, the history of a world in one paragraph. Some terms still escaped him, like ‘multinational company’ which he guessed was a powerful group of people making and selling things although he could not understand how they might be found guilty of causing bad weather.

From what he read, ‘bad’ was too weak a word for it. Violent storms had rolled in off the sea while in other places there had been severe droughts. Whole towns had been the victims of tornados. Elsewhere there had been massive flooding. The situation became so disastrous, people had been forced to take shelter deep in caves in the mountains. And there was the ’nuclear bomb’, whatever that was, which, despite being very small, terrified people and caused so much death and destruction.

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The rain uninvited

My daily walks in the forest have been marked by heavy rain which even invited itself into the book I am writing: People of the Forest. Here’s the extract.

Isla was startled when Amelia grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the window. She dug in her heals and tried to resist, but Amelia was strong. “Look,” the girl said. Isla peered round the window frame, trying to remain unseen. Jurgen was balancing along ropeways with all the grace of a ballet dancer. The sight of the brute engaged in such nimble steps, his hips swaying from side to side, had her giggling, much to her annoyance.

The forest abruptly darkened as if someone had flung a hand in front of the sun and Jurgen was lost in the gloom, his clothes blending with the trees. A jagged flash outlined his form for an instant, then the building shook as thunder rolled through the forest and the storm broke. Giant drops bounced off leaves and branches, the rattle of rain ringing like the staccato beats of an army of dwarf drummers gone mad.

A window, one of those that reached to the floor, burst open, glass shuddering as it did, and the storm shoved its way into the room with a great gust of rain closely followed by a dark form. The fighter stood in the entrance, not bothering to close the window, rain dripping from his boots and soaked clothes, his long hair plastered to his head and shoulders as he stared unblinking at Isla.

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More People of the Forest

Here’s a third extract from People of the Forest, the new novel I am writing. Meet Len and Samir, a couple of Trackers, law and order officers charged with keeping an eye out for people’s movements, especially criminals and dissidents. Everyone is fitted at birth with a self-expanding anklet that cannot be removed. It serves to track people and is permanently connected to the secure TrackNet. As for Isla Whitehead, mentioned here, you’ve already met her, she was the girl in the second extract I published, … and what about the girl? She’s a screen wizzer, a magician with computers. And here is a link to the first extract: The birth of a new novel.

Remember this is a draft and could change in the final book.

“Get your stunner,” Len said as he buckled the belt of his holster around his waist.

“What’s up?” Samir asked, biting an outsized chunk off a sandwich he’d fished from the machine.

“The two cams came back on at Mack’s shack.”

“It was probably a bug. Anyway, we can’t both go. Somebody’s got to man the screens.”

Len shook his head. “Two cams don’t just switch on and off on their own. That’s no technical glitch. Someone’s messing with TrackNet. You were right about a distraction. This is big stuff. We both go.”

“What about my sandwich?”

Len rolled his eyes. “You’ll get fat.” They were all getting fat stuck behind screens all day. They hardly ever went out on a mission. Seeing his friend’s offended look, he ran his fingers through Samir’s hair. “Bring it with you. I’ll drive.”

They were just out the door when an alarm rang on one of the screens. Samir halted. Len grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the Pod. “Check it on your Tab.”

Len slammed on the brakes as he was about to pull out of the Pod park. The Governor’s sleek Pod slid to a halt blocking the road. The sight astonished and alarmed him. The Governor never visited the Tracker station, lest it be for some flashy photo op with the press.

“What the…” Samir said, rubbing his head where he’d bashed it on the windscreen. He’d been reading the alarm message on his Tab and hadn’t seen what had happened.

Len grabbed Sami’s arm to silence him and ordered his window down. The Governor did likewise. Seated next to him was the head of Trackers. “Where are you two off to in such a hurry?” the Governor asked.

“Two cases of untagged suspects and an aggression,” Len replied.

“That can wait. Get back inside. I need to talk to you.”

Samir began to object, but Len backed their Pod out of earshot as he ordered the window up. “That’s the Governor, you daft idiot,” he muttered under his breath. “Cool it if you wanna have a job tomorrow.”

In the Tracker station, the two Trackers stood to attention as the Governor sprawled in Len’s chair. Next to him stood the Head Tracker, looking embarrassed. Over the Governor’s shoulder, Len and Samir had a good view of the archeological site on the screens. A youth was rampaging through the ruins knocking over signposts as he did. Close on his heals loomed an angry bear. Abruptly the youth halted. Ducking under the bear’s outstretched claws, he drove a long knife between the bear’s ribs. The bear faltered, opened its mouth in a silent roar and collapsed forward, trapping the boy as it did.

Both Len and Samir were so engrossed in the action that neither heard a word the Governor said.

“What did I say?” the man asked, getting to his feet. He was taller than both of them and much fitter. Some people apparently had the time and the means to work out. Len just stared back, at a loss what to say, but Samir pointed at the screen, his mouth open. When the Governor and the head of Trackers turned to look, they saw only mournful monuments. Neither the bear nor the boy were visible. The Governor frowned as he fixed the two before turning to their chief.

“I’m beginning to wonder if these two wouldn’t be better doing another job.”

The chief nodded, staring at his feet. So much for siding with his men.

“I’ll give you a last chance to redeem yourselves.” The Governor pulled a photo from his inside pocket and slapped it down on the table. Len, Samir and the head of Trackers inched forward to get a closer look.

The girl was probably about fifteen, though she looked younger. The lines of her face were full and rounded as if yet unmarked by life. Her lips compared to the relative plainness of the rest of her appearance were surprisingly sensuous. The way her chin protruded hinted she knew what she wanted and expected to get it. Her pale brown hair hung to her shoulders and partly concealed a prominent forehead. There was an intelligent look in her eyes although Len had the curious impression she was making an effort to appear nondescript.

“Ilsa Whitehead,” the Governor said. “Don’t be misled by her apparent innocence. She is a very dangerous specimen that just escaped from one of our top security reform schools.”

How ever did she manage that? The place was reputed impregnable. It was the latest generation, high-tech establishment for young offenders that boasted all the latest security gadgets.

“Not only did she break their security system, but we suspect she deactivated her anklet.”

“How did she do that?” Samir exclaimed.

“We know she is a screen wizzer. It was messing with government security systems that got her into reform school in the first place.”

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… and what about the girl?

If you read my last post, you will know a lot of the writing on my new novel has been done in the forest. Should it rain while I’m out walking, and that seems likely as the weather has changed for the worse, I can always shelter under one of the arches of the funicular (see above) to write.

I suspect the first extract from the draft of the new novel I posted a few days ago may have given the impression that it’s all about a young guy called Jake. Well it is, but there is also a girl called Isla and she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Jake after their first brief encounter. Here’s an extract from the beginning of chapter two. Remember this is a draft. Remember also that things aren’t always as they seem…

There is also a video of the author reading this extract: Isla and the boy she bit.

Isla cupped her hands under the fountain for the third time and swilled water round her mouth unable to rid herself of the taste. What if the boy had some dreadful disease? She’d bitten him, damn it! There’d been blood and he stank. Spitting the water onto the ground, she straddled the monoPod ready to ride off and pulled out her Tab. If she’d been a normal girl she’d have denounced the attack. The boy was frankly dangerous. She’d thought he was going to rape her.

Her heart pounded as she recalled how he’d flung himself on top of her. He’d been about her size, but he was much stronger. She’d felt his muscles. His chest. His arms. His legs. His weatherbeaten face had been so close. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. The whiff of mouldy cheese had almost made her gag. And the wild look in his eyes. Like a cornered beast. No. More lost and perplexed. As if he thirsted for an answer.

Isla ran her fingers over the screen of the Tab. It had been hidden in the saddlebags of the monoPod she’d stolen. She had immediately disarmed the location software of both the Pod and the Tab, but using the latter to notify the Trackers was still risky, if not plain stupid. They could trace the call and would want to know how she came to be alone in such a remote spot when she was supposed to be at school.

School? Reform school they called it. A pretty name for a prison for youngsters. A school where teacher was synonymous with warden and learning meant sweeping the floor or clearing away the cardboard Boxits each and every meal was delivered in. A place where brawls were commonplace and abuse, especially of girls and the young and weak, was the norm. In her short stay, she’d spent her time trying to go unnoticed. If they sent her back she’d be in trouble. Inmates didn’t appreciate kids who tried to escape. As if escaping insulted those left behind. She’d bear the brunt of years of pent-up anger. Especially with her being so different. Few could read or write, let alone programme screens. The authorities would surely have twigged she’d busted wide open their precious system. They’d never let her near a screen again.

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The birth of a new novel

As I reached the end of the draft of my latest novel, Stories People Tell, I was concerned that no idea for a new book sprang to mind. Normally I have to put a brake on the new ideas that jostle to be heard as the current book nears completion. But this time nothing moved, even if I nudge and prodded it. What if my source of inspiration had dried up? A worrying thought I tried set aside. I was three-quarters through the first edit of Stories People Tell before an idea came for a possible novel and in unusual circumstances.

My hip had been playing up and rather than try to rest, I decided to start daily walks, hiking first four then eight kilometres early every morning. On the second day, as I neared the eight-kilometre mark I came across a clearing off the well-used track. Littered with moss-covered rocks and some felled trees, the place had a magic quiet to it that appealed to me. I sat on a rock (see photo below), pulled out my iPad and began writing a story that took shape in a very similar place to that one. Every day I paused to sit on that rock and write, except the one day in the month when it was raining.

It was not  immediately clear where the story was going but now I have written twelve chapters (of about one hundred to be written), the direction is becoming apparent. Unlike most of my other books, I have not immediately decided on a title. I just call it New Book. It will be my twelfth novel.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning of the opening chapter. Remember this is a draft and it will probably change before the book gets published.

To think he’d walked so close to the ruins on his foraging trips, never suspecting they were there. Jake glanced at the scattered slabs of stone covered with moss and rampant ivy. Despite its dilapidated state, the sacred ring was discernible amongst the trees, culminating in a majestic menhir that towered over the others.

There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Easing onto a rock, he shrugged off his backpack. The miles of trekking were taking their toll. His legs ached. He stared at the sullen standing stone, undecided if it were welcoming or hostile. At least the site, nestled in a hallow in the ground that hid it from the main track, offered shelter to break his fast.

He pulled a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese from his bag. The bread was stale and the cheese dry. If only he had some pickles. The moment the thought crossed his mind, he berated himself. The priest would have called him twice cursed, for covetousness and gluttony. The sour-faced man was very free with his condemnations, especially when it came to Jake. All the same, he had to agree. Craving more in the circumstances really was a sin.

A tear trickled down Jake’s cheek at the memory of his mother sneaking into the castle kitchens. Begging her to cease filching food was pointless. How else was she to feed them? The pittance she earned as a kitchen help was far from enough. One day he’d walked in on her spreading ointment on wheals on her back. The sight of the swollen gashes had made him sick. Never had she complained of the whippings. She was lucky, she said, not to get beheaded like other thieves. He brushed the tears angrily from his face and returned the remaining lump of bread to his bag.

Jake was reaching for his water bottle when he froze. In the distance, approaching fast, a group of horses cantered along the main trail sending birds squawking into the air. The Baron’s men. No other group could be out in such numbers. Surely they couldn’t be looking for him so soon. He shouldered his bag and searched for a place to hide. They were bound to stick to the well-used trail, but better to play safe.

He was wrong. The first mounted man trotted between the stones just as he ducked behind the largest of them. The horses snorted when their riders pulled them to a halt. There was a telltale click of buckles and stirrups as the men dismounted. “He must be here,” a gruff voice said. It was the captain of the guard, a thin-faced, vicious blighter  called Jurgen who was the terror of the young in the castle, boasting as he did of eating little children for breakfast. Story or no story, the voice so close made his skin crawl. (…)

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When real-life settings meet fiction

One of my delights in writing Stories People Tell has been discovering how I can embed real-life places in my story and how that juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary adds power and presence to the story. Within the limits of my knowledge of the places used, I have tried to respect the confines of the contexts chosen. In addition, I found it important to select an overarching setting for the whole story which dictated the places I could use and the possible trajectories between them and which gave additional coherence to the novel.

Some caution is required, however, to make sure the depiction of such settings does not mask the story. Places, especially those that are well-known, have a power and a story of their own. If you let them come too much to the forefront they will take over and hijack your story.

Below is a short extract, depicting a visit to a psychiatric hospital. I doubt you can identify the original setting, but I have used its presence to heighten the narration.

The car swung through the wrought iron gates into the park, where a large sign announced the name and nature of the institution. The former was concealed by foliage, while the latter was plain to see, Psychiatric Hospital. The words filled Annie with panic as all her doubts came rushing back. So Alice had made up her mind that she was crazy and intended to have her locked up. In a horrible way, it all made sense. No wonder she hadn’t wanted to say where they were going.

As they wound their way under a dense canopy of trees, Annie could feel mounting resignation numb her whole being. She glanced longingly out the back window at the world beyond the gates. She was partly reassured to see that the gates did not snap shut behind them. Reaching the end of the drive, they emerged from the wood in front of a large mansion surrounded by a grassy expanse that extended as far as the eye could see. Alice parked the car at the foot of the steps to the main entrance and turned to face Annie.

Climactic finish to Stories People Tell

I have just finished the first draft of my eleventh novel, The Stories People Tell. A hundred and twenty four thousand words written in two and a half months. Details of all my novels can be found here.

Right up to the very last chapter (the one hundredth), I had no idea how the story would finish. Amongst other things, I was surprised to discover that the climatic end was a joyous celebration of the city of London and the wide diversity of the people living there.

The Stories People Tell relates the tale of Annie, an unknown seventeen year-old schoolgirl , who gets caught up in a grass-roots gay women’s movement in their opposition to Nolan Kard, current Lord Mayor of London. A rich entrepreneur, turned politician, he is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, his tasteless humour and his widespread influence, especially within the police, are undermining the country’s longstanding institutions. Annie, who is normally shy and retiring, discovers she has far more talent than she imagined. Despite herself, she becomes the figurehead of the ‘London Whatever’ movement that rocks London and its certitudes, but in so doing, she becomes the number one target for Kard and his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghost writers


Flags fluttered in the breeze over the hotel entrance as they reached Charing Cross Station. People were leaning out the many windows to catch a first glimpse of the march, whistling and cheering as the head of the cortege swept into view. The station forecourt was packed with people none of whom seemed in any hurry to catch a train. They erupted in cheers and clapping as the first of the marchers drew level with the station.

Annie halted the march and grasped the microphone Bertie handed her. She took several steps beyond the column of people, Xenia, her faithful bodyguard, at her side. Kevin, her girlfriend, on the other. The crowd hushed. “Thank you,” she said, her amplified voice echoing back from the façade of the station and away down the Strand over the heads of the marchers. “Thank you all for such a warm welcome. It touches us deeply. We, the women, men and children of London, march to put an end to violence. The violence of words, of acts, of fists, of firearms and bombs. We oppose violence not with ever more violence, but with everyday acts of kindness, with concern for those who are poor, rejected and in ill health. It is not easy. But that is our goal. If that goal appeals to you, join us now. We are on our way to St. James’s Park where there will be speeches, but also music and dancing. You are all welcome.”

She paused a moment, the fist of her right hand cradled in the fingers of her left. “We raise our fists in salute, it is not a threat but a sign of solidarity. In those fingers held tight we embrace everyone however different they may be. Gay. Trans. Straight. Black. Yellow. White. All sorts. All colours of the rainbow. All are welcome in our London.” She raised her fist in the air. Behind her, the marchers as one saluted in their turn and with it a roar went up that rippled back down The Strand. Then hesitatingly people in the station forecourt and at the windows above, raised their fists, till a sea of raised fists greeted her.

Annie nodded as a token of recognition and returned to the march, her arm slung around Kevin’s shoulders, her heart beating fast with the emotion of the moment. Bertie raised her arm and gave the signal for them to set off towards Trafalgar Square.