Creating Arabic-speaking foreigners in fiction

Introduction

I’m an academic linguist turned novelist, and my academic training has been tangled with my creative practice ever since I tried to write fiction.

This article began out of curiosity. After I completed a trilogy bristling with Arabic speakers, it occurred to me that I’d achieved the technical effects of making them sound foreign virtually on autopilot. I started drafting a blog post trying to analyse the techniques I’d used to create foreignness.

Around the same time, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s fiendishly challenging The Crossing with its swathes of untranslated Spanish dialogue. McCarthy brought me up with a start: His treatment of foreignness was a universe away from my own.

I had to look more widely. I put my blog post aside.

The framework

I made a fresh start with an article called How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction, where I used examples from Philip Kerr, Michael Mohammed Ahmed, Agatha Christie, Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway to develop a framework of propositions about how authors create foreign characters in fiction. In summary, what I proposed was:

Foreignising is manifested in voice—that of narrator, author or character.

The purpose of foreignising varies according to voice.

Foreignising techniques include:

  • Foreigner talk
  • Untranslated terms and dialogue
  • Definitions, including: Explicit definitions, Implied definitions

With a set of propositions to hand, I was in a position to return to my trilogy. and to further develop the framework.

The Siranoush Trilogy

The trilogy comprises a series of stand-alone novels, Cairo Mon AmourBury me in Valletta and The Sunset Assassin, set in Egypt, Malta and Australia respectively between 1973 and 1978. Each novel is written from alternating points of view of the key protagonist Pierre Farag and several others, all in close third person. This allowed me to foreignise the protagonists’ inner thoughts as well as their dialogue. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with Pierre rather than bringing in the other characters.

Pierre is a half-Armenian and half-Coptic private detective from Cairo. He is inadvertently entangled in an espionage plot during the Yom Kippur War, which launches him on a chain of perilous scrapes across the world, ending on a crocodile farm in remote northern Australia. I portray him as an Arabic speaker since I know quite a lot about Arabic (my Armenian is so poor that I remained silent on that dimension of Pierre’s linguistic world).

Dialogue, inner thoughts, and a hall of mirrors

Foreignising dialogue is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the mental tricks the reader has to unconsciously perform: If the character is supposed to be speaking in a foreign language, the author naturally composes the dialogue in English, but may choose to play some tricks to make it sound Arabic-flavoured, Russian-flavoured, etc. But if the character is speaking in English, the writer might tweak it with some foreigner talk using nonstandard grammar, odd vocabulary choices or even spelling out an accent.

The fragile notion of ‘inner thoughts’ throws up its own exquisite dilemmas. I frame Pierre’s thoughts for the reader in English, but I tacitly ask you to suspend disbelief and assume they occur mainly in Arabic. But it gets more tricky: I’m asking you to assume those thoughts rattle around his head in perfectly formed Arabic sentences that happen to look like perfectly formed English sentences on the page*.

A hall of mirrors, indeed.

Voice

Based on the proposed framework, I firstly foreignise Pierre as character, typically through his manner of speech; and when he holds the current point of view, I foreignise him as  author, typically through his inner thoughts.

Character

Pierre is pedantically precise in his multilingual skills and restrained in his emotions—a man ‘closed in on himself’, who thinks carefully before he speaks. I often foreignise him by placing tripwires in his English competence. For example, in The Sunset Assasin, he travels to the remote Australian town of Broken Hill to interpret for a Syrian in a court case. But he is told on his arrival that the gentleman has “karked it overnight”.

“Oh dear,” Pierre said, disguising his puzzlement. Perhaps the police sergeant meant the Syrian had changed his plea. “Should I have a word with him nevertheless?”

I’m careful not make Pierre into a caricature through foreigner talk. The ‘bad Arab’ trope is so deeply entrenched in novels and films that I absolutely refuse to propagate it (see further discussion here) .But I justified a drop of foreigner talk in these examples from minor characters in Cairo Mon Amour, the first of which attempts to portray Russian being spoken badly by an Arabic-speaking Soviet Embassy driver:

“Comrade boss. Why Russian lady all go home?”

And in the second case, which depends purely on accent, an Arabic-speaking waitress repeats a customer’s order made in English:

“Tea wiz milk shocolate kek.”

Author

The locus of author is where the hard work of foreignising goes on in The Siranoush Trilogy. Here is Pierre in Cairo Mon Amour on the last ship to leave Alexandria at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He hasn’t had much to do with Americans, and he is shocked at the behaviour of the fleeing US diplomatic staff:

Braying like donkeys, [the Americans] complained that they “only ever sailed in fucking first-class” or “wouldn’t stand for a fucking starboard cabin.” The very air was thick with the ugly English word. It was as if a race of civilised beings had reverted to savagery. The women, Pierre thought, were even more vulgar than the men.

In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre reflects on finding his arch-enemy Colonel Dimashqi confined to an iron lung. He inwardly reflects with baroque verbal ornamentation:

… was this an evil dish cooked up from British duplicity and Egyptian bald-faced guile? Oh, the tricks of la perfide Albion.

And here, Pierre experiences a Wimpy Bar for the first time in 1975:

He’d seen the English seated before these Wimpies through the window of the ‘Bars’ where they were purchased: Flat anaemic buns containing a strip of grey meat, next to desiccated yellow potato chips.

Numerous other examples of the author voice occur in the following section, where we turn to foreignising techniques. As we will see, the discussion will elaborate the framework set out in the introduction.

A learnable set of Arabic terms

I chose a small set of Arabic words—initially defined and then left in the original—for the reader to learn through repetition and prompts. Several of these occur through the entire trilogy, e.g. khawaga ‘foreigner’, bawwab ‘doorman’, shabkah ‘network’, sharmouta ‘bitch’. The whole set amounts to about ten words in total, with no more than eighteen instances of a word in any of the books—just enough in my reckoning to garnish the text without overloading the reader. The words bawwab and shabkah, for example, are part of an important plot device: Pierre’s work as a private investigator entails maintaining his ‘network’, which includes Cairo’s doormen, his eyes and ears on the city’s apartment blocks.

Here’s how I embedded an explicit definition into Pierre’s inner thoughts:

He had spent most of the previous evening consulting his shabkah, as Fawzi called it; well, you could call it a ‘network’ if the word adequately described the troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite.

There’s a really smart trick here (I modestly aver): shabkah in line 1 is the signal for us to pretend Pierre is thinking in Arabic; the quote marks around ‘network‘ in line 2 signal that the pretence is briefly lifted.

Sometimes I tutored the reader obliquely with an implied definition, again in those slippery inner thoughts:

And then what if the lawyers discovered that he had been keeping the sharmouta in luxury all this time? How would she bear the shame?

Zouzou Paris, a ‘bitch’? Well, she would say that. Everybody else did.

Let me round off my set of learnable Arabic words with ya’ni, the Arabic conversational filler roughly equivalent to ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, which occurs about a dozen times in Cairo Mon Amour. Here I put it in the mouth of Major Fawzi, a man who relishes his prowess in the English language:

“My dear friend Pierre Farag,” he began, “has persuaded me that your situation presents opportunities for all of us to profit. We have ya’ni put our noggins together in your absence.”

“Noggins?” Bellamy wasn’t sure whether Fawzi’s quaint English was part of a sophisticated act or simply the result of a diet of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

Well-known Arabic expressions

I also added a handful of Arabic expressions like In shaa’ Allah, inserted without translation in the hope that the reader will recognise them without help. Habibi and habibti, as Zouzou and Pierre address one another, fall into this category, occurring consistently untranslated throughout the trilogy.

Crosslinguistic puns

These can be pressed into foreignisation service if you’re lucky enough to find one or two. In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre and his wife Zouzou are involved in a conspiracy involving Stash, a political extremist who poses as a hippy; I have Pierre use the word khunfus (beetle) eleven times to describe Stash. It’s a colloquialism used in Egypt in the seventies, supposedly because hippies were associated with the Beatles. It comes in for some handy wordplay when Stash is found murdered:

“So the khunfus is a police informer,” Zouzou said. “Squashed like a cockroach.”

Cultural motifs

Soon after this remark, Pierre’s wife Zouzou has a glass of karkady, which by now the reader has learned is hibiscus flower tea. She yearns for a glass of this comforting drink at times of stress; the further the couple stray from Cairo, the stronger the yearning. I’d categorise this further as a cultural motif that pervades the trilogy. I had fun in The Sunset Assassin when a Sydney journalist visiting Zouzou mistook karkady for Ribena.

Another such cultural motif was kushari, the hi-carb Cairo street food; I used a kushari stall repeatedly as a meeting point; much more colourful that meeting at the Post Office! The reader’s tuition was delivered by an English speaker through an implied definition:

“As long as I don’t have to eat that horrible kushari stuff. If I have to make a run for it, I don’t want a belly full of lentils and macaroni.”

Unique Arabic words and phrases

Items occurring only once or twice in the trilogy were popped in with a definition when I felt I needed to remind the reader that the language in use is Arabic; I’m obsessively careful to know who is supposed to be speaking what in any piece of dialogue. This example is the sole instance of masri where I used an editorial definition to explain the meaning, and to confirm that Pierre is thinking in Arabic:

If anyone had bothered to ask him, “What are you?” he’d have said “masri”, ‘Egyptian’.

And in the next case, we have some brinkmanship between two Arabic-speaking British diplomats, this time with the implied definition tactic applied to a unique Arabic phrase:

“You’ve got some nerve. Bloody nerve, I’d call it. I don’t know why I don’t take you outside, point at you and yell gasus isra’ili.”

“Perhaps I am an Israeli spy, Don. Walk out the door and give it a try.”

And the following implied definition of a unique word occurred when Pierre’s nemesis Dimashqi asks Pierre’s forgiveness as he lies gasping in an iron lung. I have Pierre implicitly define bashar in his inner thoughts after the stricken Dimashqi utters the word in dialogue:

“I can offer a token of expiation.”

“There is no need. You have my forgiveness.”

“But still, we live in this material world. We are bashar, with debts to pay and accounts to be settled.”

Bashar– human? The man had lived the life of a devil. What kind of token could stand in expiation?

And here’s another tactic—a repeat definition of a unique expression, when the English version is uttered immediately after the Arabic phrase:

Allah yarhamuh.” The woman looked away, and then said, “I had a son too.”

“He died?”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

Allah yarhamuh, God bless his memory,” Lucy said.

Translated and repurposed Arabic proverbs

I threw in two of these for exotic effect:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?”

To quote the note background notes to Cairo Mon Amour, the ‘breeze around their turbans’ remark is my modification of an Egyptian proverb in J.L. Burckhardt’s Arabic Proverbs, (Curzon Press, 1994, p.3). The translation of the original reads, ‘If the turbans complain of a slight wind, what must be the state of the inner drawers?’

The second is my modification of another of Burckhardt’s proverbs. In the original (p. 114), ‘The owl has become a poetess’. I refashion this as:

“So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes.”

I should add that Johann Ludwig Burckhardt died in 1817, so I’m not sure that the originals would be recognised in contemporary Egypt. But that’s not the point; the repurposed versions are an Orientalist-inspired strategy to add exotic flavour to the text.

Let me add one more related device, the translated foreign simile, an example being ‘as confused as an ant’. I think this works in foreignising the text simply because English does not use this simile.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I haven’t set out to establish an exciting new academic subdiscipline that will bridge linguistics and fiction writing; I learned long ago that they don’t march in step, but they do have interesting encounters from time to time.

While I was writing this article, I was conscious that I had focussed solely on writing in English. I’d love to hear from linguists or authors about how languages other than English create foreigners. Let’s start a conversation.

I’d also love to hear more generally from other linguists who write fiction: Right now I’m the sole example I know!

*I should make it clear that the notion of ‘inner thoughts’ discussed here is not underpinned by psychological theories about inner speech proposed by scholars such as Vygotsky.

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You can find details of my novels here.

Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Campbell

How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction

Introducing the concept of foreignising in fiction

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a Basque man asks an American on a bus, ‘Where you go now? While the effect of foreignness is clear, how many readers would wonder how or why Hemingway achieved the effect? Very few, I think.

Except people like me. As a fiction author who happens to be an academic linguist, I’m interested in the techniques used to create foreign characters, foreign cultural milieux, locations, and mindsets. In this article I try to tease out the principles behind what I’ll call foreignising in fiction. In a subsequent article I’ll explore my own writing practice by analysing the foreignising techniques in my Siranoush Trilogy.

The article is organised around four questions:

  • What theories or principles of foreignising in fiction are available?
  • What is the purpose of foreignising in fiction?
  • What foreignising techniques do authors use?
  • What advice does my analysis suggest to authors?

Theories or principles of foreignising in fiction—or a lack thereof

My academic instincts told me to check out what others had written on the topic, for example in the field of literary stylistics, but I drew a blank. I did turn up references in the literature of translation studies, where a debate about foreignising versus domestication has bubbled on for decades with scholars wandering over a vast literary landscape to argue for and against a translation reading like a translation or an original text.

So with little help from my academic literature searches, I fell back on a few mentions on authors’ blogs on the lines of ‘try using a sprinkling of foreign words’, and ‘don’t confuse the reader’. An exception was Louise Harnby’s article on the problem of representing foreign accents. Jennifer Sommer’s well referenced piece on incorporating dialect into fiction is on the periphery of foreignising, but offers some good insights on reader acceptability.

It was time to shake out a set of propositions. I drew on a random selection of authors from Agatha Christie to Australia’s Michael Mohammed Ahmad to find out more about foreignising in fiction.

The purpose of foreignising in fiction

One approach to understanding foreignising is through the concept of voice—that complex bundle of stylistic features that make a piece of writing distinct. Voice is often specified as that of narrator, author or character, and I’ve tried to use these as lenses through which to examine foreignising. Each lens, as it turns out, reveals a range of different purposes for foreignising.

Foreignising through character

Perhaps the most famous example of a foreignised character in English literature is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whose voice is embellished not just with words and phrases like mon ami and n’est ce pas, but also with an elaborate formality: For example, Poirot comprehends rather than understands. Christie’s purpose is evidently to construct an exotic and instantly recognisable character—brand recognition if you will. But what about the man on Hemingway’s bus? His faulty grammar marks him as a foreignised character, but he appears only once. I suspect he contributes to the setting along with the rocky hills of the Spanish landscape. This tiny sample shows the contribution of vocabulary and grammar to what I’ll call foreigner talk. But what about a foreign accent? Neither Christie nor Hemingway seem to attempt representing a French or Spanish accent through spelling, and my suspicion is that foreign accents tend to be rare in contemporary fiction (unlike in film; see Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for a virtuoso effort). 

Foreignising through narrator

I chose Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe as an example of foreignising through narrator. As autobiographical fiction, the novel offers observations into the everyday lives of a chaotic, sprawling immigrant family in a Sydney suburb with a large Muslim population. The main foreignising technique is for the narrator to insert Arabic expressions into dialogue and exposition, along with English translations. The Tribe is an invitation: Join the family and get a sense of being one of us.

Foreignising through author

Philip Kerr’s March Violets works quite differently. We aren’t invited in; we’re already immersed from the first words. Bernie Gunther is a streetwise, smart-talking Berlin private detective operating in 1936 under the cloud of the Nazi regime. The first-person English text presents Bernie and all his interlocutors as monolingual German-speaking. We observe all Bernie’s external observations and internal thoughts through a magic Germanising lens. The effect is to persuade the reader that they are (almost) experiencing a German text.

Cormac McCarthy’s foreignising approach in The Crossing is quite different from Kerr’s. In pre-war America, Billy Parham journeys into a squalid and violent Mexico. Billy speaks English and Spanish, and McCarthy saturates the text with Spanish words and dialogue, largely untranslated. The experience of reading The Crossing is akin to a language immersion class; skip over what you don’t understand, keep going, absorb what you can. McCarthy’s approach is uncompromising with its sparse punctuation and absent quotation marks: This is Billy Parham’s bilingual consciousness—don’t expect the experience to be easy. How different from Kerr: Let’s make things as easy as possible for us to pretend this is Bernie’s monolingual German consciousness.

Foreignising techniques

Kerr creates a Germanised backdrop by peppering the text with a limited set of untranslated terms like MurattisBerliner MorgenpostThe Alex, Kriminalinspektor, Sipo, and Kripo. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts them as understood; the meanings eventually become clear from the context. This is in sharp contrast to McCarthy’s many untranslated Spanish words—güeritomenudocaídas, etc.—and entire chunks of untranslated dialogue, which cannot always be understood from context. I’ve tried reading McCarthy with a dictionary to hand—a pointless approach; far better to cruise the text, experiencing it on multiple levels of comprehension.

Authors exploit definitions in a range of ways. Kerr uses explicit definitions sparingly, eg. D-Zug is explained as ‘the express train’, and KZ as a ‘concentration camp’. McCarthy gives us an occasional helping hand by having Billy paraphrase in English a piece of Spanish dialogue in an internal reflection or a response to a speaker. I call this an implied definition.

Ahmad’s The Tribe is heavy with explicit definitions, in line with the book’s purpose to invite us into an alien world; unlike McCarthy, Ahmad doesn’t want us to misunderstand anything. A basic technique is to define an Arabic word at its first occurrence and then offer it untranslated on the assumption we’ll have learned the meaning. Sometimes a word is left untranslated, e.g. aa-jeen, which is easily understood from context as ‘dough’. Words like yulla and inshallah are presumably familiar to Ahmad’s readership.

Tips for authors

Here are a few tips based on the framework developed here:

  • Decide why you want to foreignise, e.g. to create a memorable character, to enhance a setting, to bring the reader into a foreign consciousness.
  • Determine the appropriate voice to foreignise, e.g. character, narrator, author.
  • Think about the amount of foreignising you expect your readership to tolerate.
  • Choose the techniques will you use, e.g. foreigner talk, untranslated foreign words and phrases, foreign words and phrases with definitions.

If you’ve found this article useful, please let me know. I’d be delighted to receive comments on foreignising in fiction from other authors and linguists.

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Copyright 2022 Stuart Campbell

Stuart Campbell was born in London but has lived most of his adult life in Sydney, Australia. He was formerly a Professor of Linguistics, but has been writing fiction since 2011. His latest novel is The True History of Jude. Find out about his books here.

Creating a fictional human language – a beginner’s experience

 

 

Most people are familiar with the idea of constructed languages like Esperanto, Tolkien’s Elvish languages, and Dothraki from Game of Thrones. As a novel-writing linguist, I was keen to get it right when I invented two languages for a novel Patria Nullius I’ve just finished writing after a six-year slog.

Constructed languages or conlangs is a serious business. The Language Creation Society brings together experts like co-founder David J. Peterson, language consultant to Game of Thrones. Oh, by the way, people who invent languages are called conlangers, and I guess I’m now one.

I took the easy road in my twenty-second century world – inventing a Creole for a mostly depopulated Australia, and an English ‘underground’ dialect in a dystopian England. I anchored my creations in existing languages, and used linguistic theory to make them plausible.

My languages are mere fragments, nothing like Jasper Charlet’s extensively constructed Carite which even has its own opera Heyra. I have a skeleton vocabulary and basic grammatical rules, but no phonetics or phonology.

Orange Creole is named for the Australian town of Orange, where I located a climate refugee camp of speakers of Fijian, Fijian Hindi, Tongan and Vietnamese whose progeny created an English-based pidgin. This developed into a full Creole in the second generation.

Using Derek Bickerton’s Bioprogram Hypothesis, I was able to invent plausible basic grammatical features for a Creole. Vocabulary was adapted from the base languages and English, e.g. nowrotu ‘> an hour of two, meaning ‘in the near future’; the word for stomach – zazzy > Vietnamese.  Dạ dày.

Here’s an Orange Creole fragment: miyanim spisi yu ‘we are your fruit’, where miyanim (we excluding you) contrasts with miyanyu, (we including you), and spisi is derived from SPC, a brand of Australian canned fruit.

And here’s a bit of Arg, my English dialect spoken by a criminal underclass, which has developed progressivemodifiers ‘msorta, ‘mlike and ‘mkinda, as in we’msorta wait ‘we’re waiting’. My professional future gazing suggests that this is a plausible development.

Patria Nullius is starting its search for an agent right now, so Orange Creole and Arg are under wraps for a while (maybe a long while!). Meanwhile I’d be glad to hear from other linguist-novelists about how you deal with literary challenges. I promise a thread soon on how I incorporated an Arabic ‘feel’ into my Siranoush Trilogy.

Frozen creative muscles thaw after lockdown

The sun’s shining in Sydney, lockdown is over. I’ve eaten in restaurants, been shopping in real shops. The memories of Click n’Collect are fading fast.

After ten years of writing novels and a lifetime of reading them, I found myself emotionally stalled for eighteen months. My sense of humour disappeared. Writing seemed futile, irrelevant, pointless.

Three weeks into freedom, the urge to read and write fiction is back.

The pleasure of reading was the first to reappear. As vaccination rates soared in Sydney and a date for the end of lockdown was announced, I happened to be staying in an AirBnB with a well-stocked bookcase. I knocked off a Richard Flanagan a Christopher Koch and a Gwendoline Riley (my delicious first) in short order.

I knew all along that I had to keep my writing muscles in order, and I’d spent three months of confinement revamping my backlist, including unpublishing a debut novel that I now find mortifying. I regained my rights from the publisher of Cairo Mon Amour and made it the first book in The Siranoush Trilogy, followed by Bury me in Valletta, and rounded off with a new work The Sunset Assassin. I designed a new set of covers and independently published the trilogy in August 2021.

Meanwhile, the old urge to create was nudging. I had in my files the unfinished draft of a complex speculative-cum-dystopian novel Patria Nullius I’d been working on for six years. I’d pestered my writing critique group with it, putting it away for six months and then dragging it out again and again. The problem was the conclusion, or lack thereof. With the thawing of my spirit, the ending leapt out at me. I finished the ms. with a sense of satisfaction rather than despair.

I made myself a promise with Patria Nullius – that I’d spend a year trying to find an agent or publisher for it. I’ve been happy to independently publish my books in recent years, but there’s something special about this book. After six years of struggle, it deserves a chance! So Patria Nullius is now sitting in the slush pile of an Australian literary agent, no doubt one of many I’ll be querying in the next year. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Eminent Professor Susan Bridehead works for a university in New Canberra, an enclave of Oxford that houses the Australian government in exile, now evolved into a monarchy ruled by a mining dynasty. As she completes a flattering history of the dynasty, she works on a parallel story, typing on an antique Remington to avoid electronic surveillance. The story recalls her early life in a largely depopulated Australia and her marriage to Jude, a naive mystic. As Susan’s health falters, she struggles to finish the story of Jude and to reconcile herself with the ghastly prophecy that haunted him.*

The Sunset Assassin is set in Manly, my adopted home town. I set the novel in 1978, and loved the challenge of recreating the atmosphere and language I encountered four decades ago fresh from London. Manly’s an intriguing place with its famous Corso connecting the ferry wharf to the surf beach, and the back streets and alleys that the tourists tend not to penetrate – a setting perhaps for an Australian Brighton Rock.

And that’s where I’m headed with my next work – a historical thriller set in Manly. It’s still in the planning stage, and I’ll be submerged in the New South Wales State Library archives for a while yet.

Happy reading!

Stuart

*For the odd Thomas Hardy tragic, you might guess that this book is partly scaffolded by elements of Jude the Obscure.

YOU CAN FIND LINKS TO MY BOOKS HERE

Writing an e-book review is easy!

Novelists thrive on reviews. Even the occasional snotty ones – you can’t please everyone!

You’ve probably seen the heartfelt plea at the end of many e-books: “If you enjoyed this book, please click here to write a review.” But the fact is that only a small percentage of readers will actually write a review.

So here’s how my readers can invest five minutes in reviewing any of my novels:

Method 1: Find me on Goodreads here and rate/review my books. Here’s what the page looks like:

Stuart Campbell’s Goodreads page

Method 2: Go back to the link where you bought the e-book (e.g. Amazon, Kobo, Apple) and hit the ‘review’ button. My vendor links are here.

Happy reviewing and thanks in advance!

Return of ‘Blue Murder’ evokes my dad’s book on police corruption.

I’m currently immersed in the history of Sydney in the late seventies as I work on my current novel The Impeccables, which touches on police corruption. What a treat, then, to get a second chance to see the 1995 ABC production Blue Murder last week (SBS OnDemand). Set in the 1970s and 1980s, the two-part mini-series follows the grisly careers of criminal Neddy Smith and corrupt cop Roger Rogerson, and the swag of gangsters who ran Sydney’s underworld. It’s totally gripping TV, delivered with a grittiness that we rarely see in the high-gloss era of Netflix.

Watching Blue Murder triggered a confluence of memories. My late father, detective-turned-barrister Donald Campbell, had a lifelong aversion to police corruption, dating back to his days as a young constable in London when stealing lead from roofs was in fashion. He was (like me) addicted to writing, and authored a three-part book on police corruption in the UK, New York, and New South Wales. The book Police Corruption, now out of print, was published by Barry Rose Law Publishers in 2002 about a year after his death, with the final editing tasks being shared by some of his sons.

I recall him writing to me in around 1998 to obtain a copy of the Wood Royal Commission report, which provided much of the background on the NSW section. I bought the CD of the report in a government office in George Street, and mailed it him in London. On a visit to my old family home not long after, I was woken by the fax machine in the early hours of the morning; it was from a very senior source in Sydney answering some point of detail.

I dipped into Police Corruption after watching Blue Murder to fill in the background to the mini-series, much of which I had forgotten. I hadn’t looked at my dad’s book for a few years, but the writing was as crisp and readable as I remembered it. In fact, I’m keen to make the book available to the public again, and I have the outline of a plan in mind.

So, back to The Impeccables, with a much sharper feel for my setting and a reminder of how rotten the state of NSW was in those days.

You can find out more about my novels here.

Walking back to 1978 in Manly’s back lanes

If you look hard enough, lockdown has its upsides. Here in Manly, my daily exercise walk takes me around quaint back streets I’d never normally go to. The glorious beachfront is too crowded for safety, even if the walkers are in singles or pairs as prescribed by the Public Health (COVID-19) Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020.

The other upside of being locked down is the extra time I have for writing. After completing my socially isolated morning schedule (news, balcony exercises, daily deep cleaning project, family and work Zoom sessions, walk) I get to spend a fair chunk of the afternoon working on my next novel.

Now, here’s a nice confluence of things: This novel (working title The Impeccables) is set in Manly in 1978, and when I walk the quiet back streets my town looks pretty much as it did in the late seventies when I first lived here.

I have a habit of ‘prewriting’ a lot of my work while I’m walking, so I stroll around the empty lanes immersed in the story, and recalling fragments of life in 1978 Manly that I can weave into the setting. These are some of the things that came back to me yesterday:

  • water beds
  • rented black and white TVs
  • improvised car aerials made from coat hangers bent into the outline of Australia
  • joss sticks
  • KB beer

Yesterday I discovered this ingenious mural* on the back wall of the Salvation Army premises in Kangaroo Lane, and I returned this afternoon to take more photographs of this forgotten corner of my town. I’ve printed the picture in monochrome in sympathy with the fact there were still plenty of black and white TVs in the late seventies. It’ll feature somewhere in the new novel.

Here’s the draft opening of The Impeccables:

Pierre Farag was woken by a thump and a clatter. He took his hand out of the sheets to touch the wall of the tiny ground-floor flat. Their rented home was in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The bedroom wall was still warm. It would be this way until March, when autumn released Sydney from the ravaging summer heat. 

He padded out to the front yard. The Sun Herald – the New Year’s Day 1978 edition – lay on the doormat where it had bounced off the flyscreen. The paper van slewed around to serve the other side of Rialto Close, the driver steering with his left arm and lobbing the rolled-up papers into the front yards with his right.

Just give me a year and you’ll be able to read the whole thing!

Last thing: Thanks for all the wonderful feedback I’ve had for Bury me in Valletta. It makes the labour of writing into a pleasure.

*Update: A closer look at the mural shows that is signed by Manly artist Mark Budd and dated 09.

Experimenting with Bookbub ads

Bookbub statistics

I’ve been experimenting with Bookbub ads over the last few weeks, basically gambling small sums to advertise my novels on this huge email-based book marketing platform.

Like many online ad platforms, Bookbub is based on an auction system: Bookbub puts your ad in front of eyeballs, you make a bid for the owners of the eyeballs to click on your ad, and you hope that the clicks turn into purchases.

BookBub ad creative

Your success depends on a lot of variables interacting to hook the right readers. For example, you can target readers who like particular authors, who live in different countries, and buy from different vendors (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Kobo). You can vary your price-per-click bid rate, and the price of your book. You can advertise on different days of the week, and you can choose to release to spend your money quickly or slowly. And of course, you have to design an ad that will seduce those eyeballs. The ad on the left has been one of my most successful.

There are lots of whizz-bang guides on how to get the most out of online ads (even entire courses!), but the take-away message is that you must test multiple versions of ads to find the optimum combination of variables.

As a former academic who has crunched a lot of slippery data (my field is linguistics), this kind of testing looks very complicated; there are so many variables. It is made more difficult for a small player like me investing an average $10 a test because the scale of results is too small to be statistically reliable. For example, why was the clickthrough rate for Apple and Kobo higher this Friday than Thursday, but lower for Amazon? (See the graph at the top of this post.) If I invested $10,000 rather than $10, I’d be much more confident in the results.

So where to? Short of running hundreds of small A/B tests or performing a factor analysis on a $10,000 test, I’m falling back on the approach I used as a linguistics academic when I operated in the grey zone between qualitative and quantitative data: (a) Start with a rough working hypothesis (b) gradually modify the hypothesis as new data comes in, (c) test the modified hypothesis. In practice this has entailed about ten tests so far.

And what have I Iearned? Well, here are some trends, but bear in mind that context is everything: I’m a ‘mature’ male Australian hybrid author writing quirky espionage fiction, and psychological and satirical thrillers, not a young female American author of time travel shape-shifter romance.

AD DESIGN: A quote from a review works better than a summary of the plot.

REGION: Australia (and to an extent Canada) are less competitive than the US and UK.

VENDOR: Apple and Kobo sell as well as Amazon in Australia.

WEEKDAY: Weekend ads may do less well than weekday ads.

AUTHOR: Readers of Daniel Silva like my books.

Remember these are trends based on small stats, not firm conclusions.

The outlook? I’m getting close to a return on my investment on my ads. I’m planning to run my best ad with a bigger investment, but to test some variations with a simultaneous low-cost ad.

I’d be fascinated to hear from other authors who are treading the same path.

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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

So who’s Mr. French, and why is he unmasked?

Like most writers I know, I have voluminous files of old drafts, abandoned chapters and even abandoned novels. It’s all part of learning the craft – knowing when to let go of something that just isn’t working.

Last year, I began writing a complicated dystopian novel. My writing critique group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (I couldn’t live without them) gave it a big thumbs down.

Undeterred, I brought it back a few weeks ago with a new beginning. Thumbs down again.

Another beginning. Another thumbs down.

But last week, with beginning #3, I got the seal of literary approval. The corpse has risen from the dead. It is walking. A twisted future world is under construction.

To celebrate, I dusted off a short story I wrote a while ago, did some more work on it, gave it a new title Unmasking Mr. French, and posted it on this site as the prize for signing up to my newsletter. I even invested in a Shutterstock image and made a ‘cover’. (My regular professional cover designer is  busy right now, and will probably shriek in horror when she sees my work!)

Because I’m still in celebratory mood,  I’m giving you the story  without making you sign up since you managed to find my website. Just click here and pop in the password FREE.

Have a read and let me know what you think.

Stu