Monday, November 28, 2011

NO RULES: Nigel Bird

It's been a banner year for NIGEL BIRD. He started it with the critically lauded story collection DIRTY OLD TOWN, followed it about mid-year with his next set of tales, BEAT ON THE BRAT, and wraps the year up with a third collection called WITH LOVE AND SQUALOR. As if three volumes of short stories wasn't enough, he also released several e-shorts, a book of poetry for children, and a remarkable novella called SMOKE.

When he's not writing fiction, he puts himself at the service of other writers and readers with the excellent blog, Sea Minor.

No matter how awful or violent the events become in a Nigel Bird story (and they can get pretty grim sometimes) the characteristic that really defines them is the strong sense of compassion and decency. Bird can show you the worst traits humans are capable of, and at the same time make you sympathetic to the whole human race. I don't know how he does it, man.

But I've said all this about Nigel Bird before and I don't need to say it again. He's one of my favorite people in this strange and cool Noir Underground, a good friend and a good human being. I'm proud to give you NIGEL BIRD.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

In my teaching recently, I’ve been working with a group of children who struggle with literacy on their mind-mapping. In essence, that’s about recording information in visual form rather than in words.

Our first lesson was on emotions, based upon the range of ‘smileys’ out there. It’s amazing what a difference the repositioning of a line can make, or an adjustment to its position. At its simplest, take the smile and the frown – draw the curve one way there’s sadness, turn it upside down it’s happy. A straight line will give a serious face and a couple of wavy lines over the eyes and you have anxiety.

Easily done.

Then take the idea of shading a picture in places to suggest a whole – not every brick on a building needs to be sketched in to make it look like it’s made of stone.

Hints, well-handled impressions, can lead the eye to create an altogether bigger picture.
The same can be said of writing.

Scene setting isn’t one of my strengths; I go to great lengths to avoid it when I’m being lazy.
With ‘Smoke’ though, I was looking at making the story as good as I could. It was this weakness that I began with during the edits.

Thing is, I happen to work in the town where the story is set.

Tranent is a town just outside of Edinburgh. Founded on the mining industry, it has less of a clear identity now that the coal is no longer economical to dig.

There are council estates where things can be very tough indeed for those who live there, and there are the new houses which home the professionals who work in the city, only a short drive away.

It gave me a problem I manage to get away from on the whole – the need to paint an accurate picture without making it one of replication. Apart from anything, some of the residents would be up in arms if they thought I was suggesting their home is as rough as the place I’ve painted, even though another section of the community would wave such a story with pride or even claim things had been diluted.

My first approach on setting came through the characters. The families I have created have difficult lives. Things tend not to go right for them. Leaving town rarely happens. They stick closely together. School is an inconvenience, literacy derided as it has nothing to do with football, fighting or beer.

Next I put in the things I know:

the High Street and all the little alleyways leading from it, perfect for hit and runs or stealthy attacks.

the Firth Of Forth, a strip of water that separates the Lothians from the Kingdom of Fife.

the power station, chimneys pointing high and proud.

one of the many pubs.

a High School.

council estates.

newly built houses.

the weather.


an old statue.

a hill.

a couple of historical points.

So far so good.

I remember hearing a writer recommending the keeping of a weather diary as a tip so that at any point in time the weather can be described in detail. I mentioned that I’m lazy, so I didn’t have such a diary to check on (you might want to try it, though, as you do always need weather). My solution was to mention it as little as possible. I think when I do describe it, it’s either through the actions of the characters or I use fog (fog’s a great type of weather in which to hide a town’s features).

I guess the final aspect of the setting is the dialogue. I’ve made it close to local in some ways, yet to do so accurately would mean it would be virtually unreadable. I’d like to think I’ve captured some of that essence without making it difficult. Think of it as an impressionistic attempt at Tranent Scottish.

Would a Belter (Tranent resident) recognise their town through my novella? I think they could.
Would a guided tour based on the novel get you round an easily planned route? No way. There’ll be no ‘Smoke tours’ after this one.

In the end, it’s a story about three groups of people whose lives intertwine. As is often the case, when people interact there are misunderstandings and when there are misunderstandings there are stories to tell. It’s a caricature of people and place, but the whiffs of truth should hit the reader strongly from time to time, otherwise I haven’t written the novella I think I have – don’t be shy to let me know.

Final shot.

The same children went to see Kes at the theatre recently, a play based upon ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’. Featuring heavily in the story is a bird of prey (Kes). I wondered how they’d deal with this in an enclosed space. Answer: A leather glove and a lure and a lot left to the imagination. And they loved it.


  1. Very cool post, Nigel. The dialog and how your characters act provide so much of that sense of place.

  2. Thanks for sharing your secrets.....

  3. That was fantastic, Nigel. A great insight into your novella and a few great 'tips' that I will put into practice.

    Well done!

  4. I appreciate your openness here, Nigel. Wish I'd had a teacher like you. Those kids are lucky.

    Ah, Kes... brings back fond memories.