From Ox heads to ‘A’ – a potted History of Writing

alphabet-David Hewitt

photo: David Hewitt

We are utterly reliant on our alphabet, but do you know where it came from and how it developed into what we use today? I was so fascinated by a brilliant article on the subject by Caroline Brothers recently published in The Author that I felt compelled to share a short summary.

The origin of writing

Experts reckon that writing was invented independently in four places: before 3000BC by the Sumerians (who lived around the river Euphrates) and by the inhabitants of Southern Mexico, then by the Egyptians in 3000BC, and later by the Chinese in 1300BC; all occurring independently.

hieroglyphs-Thomas Picard

photo: Thomas Picard

However, in those days, when the focus was on food and trade, the earliest forms of writing were limited to symbols (pictographs) that bore a resemblance to the nouns they represented. Who needed a word for ‘joyful’ when the overwhelming priority was to gather enough to eat and keep warm? ‘Ox’, ‘water’, ‘fig’, ’fire’ etc. were the necessary words.

Representing Intangible Words

Brothers explained that subsequent centuries saw forty different writing systems evolve from those four roots, but it was the Sumerians who, again, took the next big step forward in the written form. They realised that abstract words could be depicted by combining nouns that sounded the same when put in juxtaposition. In her article, Brothers demonstrates this with the example of the word ‘belief’, which could be constructed by joining the symbol that represented a bee to the one for a leaf and adding a mark to indicate that the resulting word was to be taken in that way.

Now writing could progress from the constraints of agricultural lists to stories and poems: the tool for “real” literature was born.

Inventing an Alphabet

Meanwhile, the Egyptians were developing their own writing system and added signs for consonants to their pictograms and associated symbols. At one point, they had over a thousand different symbols! However, it was the Semitic race of Syria and Sinai in the

hieroglyphs-Mira Pavlakovic

photo: Mira Pavlakovic

second millennium BC who are credited with the biggest disruptive step forward—the invention of an alphabet. They experimented with adding vowels, and devised a system from which can be traced the Greek alphabet. The Greek system gave rise to the Roman one, which is recognizable as the source of today’s modern Western alphabet.

A recent exhibition of writing at the British Library, which Brothers visited, traced how the alphabets’ individual characters changed over time. Taking the example of our letter ‘A’, it demonstrated how the Phoenicians took the Egyptian symbol that represented an ox head and turned it on its side; the Greeks later rotated it, before the Etruscans in ancient Italy adopted it, from where it found its way into the Roman alphabet.

A Smile and a Wink

smiley-Jay LopezWriting and the characters used have come a long way over the last 5,000 years. Perhaps our twenty-first century addition to this continued evolution is the introduction of emoticons, which provide a mechanism for representing the tone in which something is spoken. If the human race is still around in another thousand years, perhaps historians will see it as the next significant step in the development of writing. Or maybe we’re just craving a return to the hieroglyphs of our early forefathers!

Thank You to the Ancients

Without the Sumerians and Semites and all the others who strove to create a system for the written word, we would be without this fantastic medium for sharing emotion-generating stories. We would be without the power of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, and all the others who have provided entertainment across the centuries, the masters of taking the written word and using it to wring tears, sadness, fear and joy from our minds.

Here’s a big “thank you” to our ancestors.


EavesdropCoverREDUCEDIan Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, first published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire, England, and is a member of the Society of Authors and the International Thriller Writers Association.

Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk/Ian-Coates/e/B00R66BWLM

Audible: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Eavesdrop-Audiobook/B07K6R3R85

Website: www.iancoatesthrillers.co.uk

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates

Twitter:www.twitter.com/Ian_Coates_

Free Competition to Win An Audio Book

Do you love audio books? Would you like to win a FREE audio-book worth $16.35 / £14.99?

Eavesdrop-cover-audibleTo mark the launch of Audible’s edition of the spy thriller Eavesdrop, there’s a competition running on the International Thriller Writers’ webpage to win the audio version of this fast-paced novel. Free to enter. Just go to ITW’s “thebigthrill” Neverending Book giveaway page, scroll down to the entry for Eavesdrop, click, and simply reply to the post.

Your Customs Investigator career in ruins, your wife fighting cancer… What do you do when you discover the reason behind your dismissal is a police cover-up, and that there’s a way to prove your innocence?

Enjoy TV actor Simon Darwen bringing its assassins, smugglers and high-tech spies to life…

www.thebigthrill.org/giveaway/

The competition is only open until Jan 31st, so hurry.

 

About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

More About the Author

Ian posts on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates

His Tweets can be found at: www.twitter.com/@ian_coates_

 

 

 

 

 

The Making of an Audio Book

In this month’s blog, I share what it was like to experience the creation of an audio book version of my thriller Eavesdrop.

Wednesday June 13th 2018

My head’s been in a spin all day. The unexpected email arrived this morning, a reply to my entry to Audible’s New Crime Writing Grant competition. I had sent them a copy of Eavesdrop on the off-chance—didn’t think it would be accepted because it had been previously published. Although the competition title suggested it only wanted un-published work, the terms & conditions were less specific and only said the author had to be holding the full rights. I had sent it anyway with an explanatory letter; nothing to lose.

“…disappointed to inform you that your title was not selected for our Crime Grant shortlist due to the work being published already in the US,” the writer informed me. Heart sinks, but it’s what I had expected. “…judges were so impressed that we would like to offer you a standard audio agreement with Audible anyway!” I re-read the whole email again carefully to make sure I’d understood. Sure enough, there below are outline details of a proffered contract for Audible to produce an audio version of my book. There’s a reasonable advance and terms that seem okay. Of-course I email back; would be delighted to accept. Let me know more.

Thursday June 28th 2018

TypingFinally signed the contract today. Had a few questions, which Audible answered very efficiently, and they made a small change at my request. The “paperwork” is all electronic—one of those pdf files that works with e-signatures. I sign it with a text string. Now need to do the tax questionnaire: because money comes from the USA, it will be taxed there as well as here unless I have the necessary forms in place. Fortunately I already have income from the USA and have the requisite American ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) that allows me to avoid double taxation. I provide the Audible database with my number, send them an invoice for the advance, and all is set.

Monday July 30th 2018

Get an email introduction to my editor. He’ll be helping to make it “audio-ready”, whatever that means.

Wednesday August 8th 2018

Chat on the phone today with the editor. He’s very complimentary, which obviously makes me feel great. He says he normally has to do structural changes to books, but reckons Eavesdrop is great as it stands. Good sense of pace, he says; well structured already. I remember the long spreadsheet I used while writing it, with all the scenes numbered and summarised down to single lines so that I could juggle them around to maximise suspense while still able to see the big picture to make it flow well; it was obviously worth it. Just a few line edits is all he wants. It won’t take long, but he’s about to go on holiday and would like to wait until he returns so that he can start it fresh and do a good job. I agree; works okay for me.

Sunday September 23rd 2018

Now holidays are out of the way, my editor is on the case. I get an email with his suggested changes, and we arrange a telephone call to discuss them. I skim through his lonely-beach-1370802-639x545notes. It’s a Word document and we’ve agreed to use its ‘review’ feature to track each suggested change. It’s rewarding to see how few edits he’s proposing—little more than minor word changes here and there.

I don’t reckon it’ll take long to go through them.

Wednesday September 26th 2018

We have a brief phone call. He again comments on how well written Eavesdrop is, and how much he enjoyed reading it. That gives my confidence a boost.

I spend a few hours each day going through all the comments in detail. It takes longer than I expected but I’m done within the week.

mansface2Being back with these old characters feels strange. Very glad I’m not being asked to add any more descriptions of them because I can’t remember the team well enough—that would end in continuity errors, I’m sure. Somewhere in the loft I’ve got my original notes from the book—I did character details for them all, and even had pictures clipped from magazines for people who resembled my characters—but I’ve got a horrible feeling some of those have been thrown away by now.

We work it with me also using the ‘review comments’ feature, and I add a response to each proposed change. Glad to say they’re mainly all word or small phrase changes. He makes an alternative suggestion; I look at it and either accept it or make a counter proposal. In some cases, I don’t like his word, but I can see what he’s trying to achieve, so I spend time looking at ones I feel work better. For example, in one section I had Winter “diving” into another room. ‘Change it to “moved”,’ my editor says. I can see why he doesn’t like “dived” (or “dove” if we stick with American spelling) because Winter doesn’t end up on the floor; but “moved” just feels such a sluggish verb; I want more urgency.

How about “darted”? I suggest. Document pings back later with a new comment: ‘You’ve already used that a couple of times in this chapter.’ More head scratching and thumbing of thesaurus. Finally we agree that “bolted” is the best choice.

Thursday October 4th 2018

A week later, all’s done and he’s sent it to the production team. He tells me his involvement is now finished and someone else will pick it up. I ask if he knows the schedule for the next stage of the book, but all he can tell me is that it’s planned for the first quarter of next year; no specific dates are yet fixed. Who’s my contact now? I wonder, but I’m sure someone will be in touch.

Friday October 26th 2018

calendarFeels like I’m in a black hole. I want to know the production schedule so I can plan my own publicity and press releases. You’re supposed to start at least six weeks before launch for e-releases (more for physical formats), and a launch of “quarter one” could easily mean we’re almost there already.

I try emailing the wonderful Alex—a manger in Audible’s Business Affairs team—who’s always so efficient, and true to form, she replies the same day to say it’s not fixed yet. ‘It can take time to find the right narrator for the book,’ she explains, and I find the care they seem to employ to get the audio-book to its best is really encouraging.

I remember the few phrases of Finnish in chapter 38 and wonder if they’ll warn the narrator. How will he* go about checking the pronunciation? I wonder. Perhaps I should put him in touch with one of my ex-colleagues from when I worked at Nokia Mobile Phones—as a Finnish company, there were plenty of native speakers around, and I still have many of them as Facebook friends. I’ll wait to see if Audible raises the question. They’re professionals after all, and this can’t be the first time they’ve produced an audio book with a few foreign words in it.

*By the way, I’ve assumed it’s to be a male narrator on the basis that the main character is a bloke; it would be odd to have him narrated in a woman’s voice. In contrast, the thriller I’m working on at the moment has a woman as the lead character—if I sell the audio rights for that one, I assume its narrator would probably be female.

Tuesday October 30th 2018

An email Eavesdrop-cover-audiblearrives out of the blue. The writer introduces herself as in charge of artwork and she has attached a jpeg of the cover they’ve created.

It’s awesome. So edgy, and I think it captures the tension of the thriller brilliantly. I email back to let her know how great I think it is.

I’m now really excited. This is real. I imagine it sitting on Amazon alongside my print and e-book editions. I think about printing the cover out and making a framed picture for my study wall.

Tuesday November 14th 2018

Taken totally by surprise today; feeling shocked.

Most of my Facebook and Twitter posts are about interesting new technology or unusual crime related news, but I thought it was time to give my thriller a bit of a plug. I put a very short extract up and inserted a link to Amazon’s American e-book page. Better check it’s the correct link first, I think, so entered it straight into a browser. “This product is currently not available,” Amazon reports back. My heart does a little jump and I start to panic. Why has it disappeared?*

In case my link is out of date (perhaps it was pointing to the original Assent Publishing version), I use the Amazon search box and enter “Eavesdrop”. I scroll down a list and there’s the familiar grey and blue cover. Just below that I’m startled to see the new red and navy art work that Audible created.

Stunned, I click through and there’s the audio version available for pre-order; release date: Nov 29th 2018. There’s a narrator named as well—Simon Darwen. That’s barely two weeks away. I’ve suddenly got to compress all my own publicity into just fourteen days. I feel slight panic, then wonder if the date’s right. I check the Audible website as well. Same date. Okay—looks like tomorrow will be a busy day finding all the media contacts I need. Having moved to Worcestershire only a few months ago, my current contact list doesn’t cover this area, and I need to start again.

Simon-DarwenTime to check out the narrator. I’d hoped to have been introduced to him earlier, possibly even get a photo together for my publicity. Too late now. I Google him: IMDb tells me he’s best know for parts in the TV shows The Bletchley Circle, Silent Witness, and Call The Midwife. Sounds hopeful. I go back to the Audible site, search for other books he’s narrated, and listen to a few extracts. Impressed. And he is great at accents from the bits I hear. He’ll have done a great job, I’m sure.

I still wonder how he dealt with those sentences of Finnish, though. I think I’ll try to contact him out of curiosity to ask how he got on with them. Too late now to help, of-course—the recording must be well finished—but it would be nice to know. I’ll search for him on social media.

*was quickly resolved. Turned out it was a technical problem Amazon was already aware of.

Thursday November 15th 2018

Spent the day on press releases. When Assent first published Eavesdrop, they provided marketing and publicity training, so I know how to go about it. I just need a contacts list.

Half a day of internet searching later and I think I have a suitable set, and out go the first releases on email. The angle I take on the first one is summed up by the title I give it—Local Author’s Illicit Competition Entry Thrills Audio Publisher. I was going to have Author’s Cheeky Competition Entry Thrills… but realised in time that the combination of “cheeky” and “thrills” could be badly misconstrued. Glad I spotted that in time!

I deal with how Audible came to read Eavesdrop in the first place and how I’ve loved audio books since my parents played story cassettes to me on long car journeys. Hopefully it might pique someone’s interest.

reading-newspaperIt’s about 300 words in length—a little long, but I’m pleased with it and send it out to about half a dozen local papers and magazines, directly addressed to the relevant reporters and editors.

I plan the rest of the publicity campaign—or at least my personal one; I don’t know what Audible is planning, but I guess they’re doing something. I check my email again, but nothing from them to let me know their plans. ‘Silence is golden,’ didn’t someone once sing? Not in this case, perhaps.

I’ll do two more press releases over the coming two weeks—one to the publicise their choice of narrator and the fantastic new cover, and one to inform of the release itself, which according to their website is still set for November 29th.

Long day on the computer. My eyes are sore and I’m tired, but publicity is now underway. Just need to see if any of those reporters show an interest.

Friday November 16th 2018

I prepare a social media splurge—one item each day, slowly introducing information about the audio book, planned to culminate on the 29th with the release itself. I’ll add my normal techie / crime posts in between, of-course, so that it’s not only banging away about it; I reckon a good balance is important.

Check me out on facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates and twitter.com/@ian_coates_

Thursday November 29th 2018

drawing-pin-1427330-1278x855Release day today. Still heard nothing from Audible, which surprises me. Went to Amazon and clicked “hear sample”. Sounds good, but I’d like to hear the full version. I’m surprised Audible didn’t send me a copy once it was ready. I email the always-helpful and always-patient Alex, who rapidly puts me in touch with the “author-care” team; they will send me a code to get my free copy.

Well,  here we are at the end of a journey. A great actor gives voice to Eavesdrop’s assassins, smugglers and high-tech spies. Hear the characters come alive for yourself – Audible’s audio version of the thriller Eavesdrop can be purchased directly from Audible’s site (audible.co.uk or audible.com)  or via Amazon (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com).

 

The Art of a Good Book Blurb

We did a little experiment recently with book blurbs. Blurbs are the few words on the back of a paperback that entice you into its pages and are a key tool in selling. Without a good one, the perspective reader will return your book to the shelf and select another author’s. It’s therefore important to find a way for those two-dozen words to make an impact. But how?

paperback-books-1309582-1278x849Our experiment was prompted when I started to think about blurbs for my latest thriller, The Rival. I eventually came up with 25 words that I felt effectively engaged the reader and I was pleased with the result. For a comparison, I re-read the blurb I’d created for Eavesdrop in conjunction with my publisher a couple of years before and realised that Eavesdrop’s blurb was missing something that the one I had just moulded for The Rival had somehow captured. But why did one feel so much more effective? I read and re-read them before I suddenly realised the difference was in the depth of emotional involvement.

The original wording for Eavesdrop had been search engine optimized; it captured the most important and exciting plot points; it displayed the style and tone of the book; it was short and punchy. But it didn’t engage in the same way. So I decided to test my new theory, and re-wrote it with the aim of putting the reader in the shoes of the protagonist. Instead of saying what he did, I instead asked, what you would do in the same situation?

book-eyes-1251357To test whether my thoughts on this were correct, we then held an on-line poll among readers to get their view on 3 slightly different blurbs for Eavesdrop.  We used the original one that had been so highly polished with my publishers, and put it alongside the one that maximized emotional engagement, and threw in a third that I made up in ten seconds. Here they are below in random order. Read them quickly. Don’t analyze them just yet, but simply read them as you would in a bookshop and see which draws you in most:

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East Assassins?

Your Customs Investigator career in ruins, your wife fighting cancer… What do you do when you discover the reason behind your dismissal is a police cover-up, and that there’s a way to prove your innocence?

James Winter’s career is trashed when a Mossad plan to track Syrian assassins has unexpected consequences. His fight for re-instatement uncovers a Middle East plot that suddenly threatens his own life.

So which of those made you most want to open the book and see what chapter one is like? The results in our poll were conclusive, with the middle one a winner by a large margin. The theory I’d stumbled upon merely by observation had been proven.

So, the secret of a good book blurb is to emotionally engage your perspective reader and to get him or her to feel what it would be like if they were your protagonist. As soon as they experience the same adrenaline surge, the same despair, the same anger as the hero, then the blurb has done its job. They are emotionally engaged, and so much closer to buying that book.


About the Author

Eavesdrop-cover-square

Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, originally published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire with his wife and two daughters.

Amazon website

Author’s website

Facebook

Twitter

High Tech & The Modern Author (pt2)

This month we conclude our 2 part blog on the impact of modern tech on the modern author.

New opportunities

As well as modern tech placing constraints on the author, it also provides new opportunities. Exploiting them can lead to fresh and unique plots and helps to avoid the regurgitation of stale ideas.

Think cyber-terrorists for instance. Twenty years ago, such a term was unknown; now, they can hold major organisations to ransom or, as in the case of the attack on the Iranian reactors, invisibly destroy an enemy’s resources.

HackerThe hacker who stumbles over confidential government data, the virus creator who can infiltrate an organisation’s systems and extract sensitive documents, these all offer new plot lines that couldn’t exist in Agatha Christie’s day.

But beware!

It’s too easy to be late at picking up such plot ideas. Ten years ago, it was a new and exciting idea to have hackers who become the CIA’s target when they accidently discover dramatic government information. Many authors spotted that opportunity, however; today it has already become clichéd and boring.

So keep ears open and receptive to new ideas as technology develops. But be there first—or your resulting plot could quickly feel clichéd. It’s not only tech that moves quickly.

Too Much Like Science Fiction

But here lies another problem. Adding very cutting-edge scientific advances to a thriller can easily get it booted into the trashcan labelled “unrealistic.” A step too far and it can seem too close to science-fiction for many readers. Of this, the author must beware.

vanquishThe James Bond films are a good example of this, which for many people veer into unrealism. Think of 007’s Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day for example: it was a car that the touch of a button rendered invisible.  The idea for this probably came from technology that even today is still in its infancy. Take an object you want to disappear and coat the side facing you with a full-size colour display. Next, fix a camera array facing away from you to its reverse side. Voila—you now have the ability to make your object disappear at the flick of a few trillion pixels: by displaying what the camera sees over the display, the item can appear to disappear because the user sees instead what is behind that object.

The technology is far from the state needed for that James Bond film, however—if the person moves, they need to see the image change angle, which if-course it can’t; the illusion is shattered.

Technology overcomes that issue by placing an additional camera facing the person and using eye-tracking techniques and advanced imaging algorithms to work out where they are looking. It then adjusts what is rendered on the display in response. Introduce a second observer, of-course, and that too becomes broken.

So the technology to provide an invisibility cloak is very much in its infancy. The basic concept has been demonstrated but, so far, the step to Bond’s Aston Martin is still too far. So despite having a foundation in reality, it appears to be pure science fiction to 99% of the population; the battle for reality is lost.

The scientific-aware author therefore needs caution in what they portray. Ensure readers don’t dismiss as unrealistic what you have carefully researched. The cutting-edge can often be a step too far.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was caught out by this myself a few years ago when watching a film in which the CIA remotely monitored the conversation of two terrorists by using the microphone in one of their mobile phones. Working in mobile phone R&D as I was at the time, I dismissed this as nonsense, and it spoilt the rest of the film for me. However, sometime later, I read how, indeed, such an act can be performed by taking control of the phone with the aid of the service provider.

Again, this is a warning to the tech-savvy author to be careful, even when using proven technology—if the average reader deems it unrealistic, avoid it.

Or invest a large proportion of your chapters to showing why it is realistic. Take the reader through the invention’s development, show them how it works; perhaps then they’ll believe you.

A New Genre—the Technothriller

That drags us screaming into the realm of that new genre, the technothriller. No, we’re not talking science-fiction here, but a story that revolves around technology that is grounded at least loosely in reality. The whole plot can revolve around the development and use of some new gadget or scientific invention. This provides numerous opportunities for writers to introduce thriller elements into a story that focuses heavilyTyping on technology. Wikipedia proposes Alastair Maclean’s The Satan Bug and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October as good examples of this genre. Maclean dealt with the theft of germ warfare toxins to which there was no known cure; and Clancy chose to deal with an attempt to steal a highly advanced Russian submarine.

But the author must really know his field if he is to venture into this genre, and I would suggest the focus of such novels is so techno-centric that its readership might be limited in comparison to that enjoyed by main stream genre-fiction.

A Conclusion of Tech Versus Author

So the latest advances in science and technology provide new and exciting opportunities. They also scatter snares on the path of the unwary author and make traditional crucible-studyingstyle stories harder to site in the modern day. Rather than leading to the death of the thriller, technology simply shifts the landscape that’s available to the writer.

Those who write novels based in our current era have a responsibility to keep abreast of technological discoveries. But much of an author’s life is dedicated to research anyway, so that is not really anything new either.

 

About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

More About the Author

Ian posts on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates

His Tweets can be found at: www.twitter.com/@ian_coates_

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Photographs (freeimages.com) by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.

 

 

High-Tech & the Modern Thriller

Modern readers expect pace-racing action, an intriguing plot, and realistic characters. But they also demand a believable story, and that presents a unique challenge to thriller writers in today’s world of high-tech gadgets, the internet, and massive computing power.

I love working with high-tech. I graduated in electronics in the eighties, and the exciting gadgets and ideas that engineers generate never fail to amaze me. I try to use that experience to enhance my writing, and in this two-part blog, we’ll look at some of the constraints and difficulties our high-tech world imposes on story lines, the new challenges authors must grapple with to maintain realism, but also the fresh opportunities that new technology offers for plot ideas.

High Tech in the Crucible

For Agatha Christie, it was simple. Suspense could easily be generated by imprisoning her book’s characters in an environment in which mortal danger lurks, but from which they cannot escape. This is sometimes known as “The Crucible” technique.

Trapping them there is a simple way to create tension—take six friends and place them in a manor house surrounded by ten feet thick snowdrifts; they cannot leave. Now murder one of their party, and the opportunity for tension is obvious. The murderer is one of the five still alive; he or she is still in their midst because there is no way to leave. And if they find someone has snipped the phone line, they cannot call for support. They are stuck with a murderer without help. What was his motive? Will he strike again?

While that was fine for the 1950s, it is hard to make such scenarios work these days. Any of the guests could call the emergency services from their mobile, or send a Tweet to the lmobilephone-smlocal police station. The modern writer creating stories based in the 21st century must therefore work a little harder than their predecessors to make crucibles work.

And technology makes plot lines more difficult in other situations, not just the crucible. Barely twenty-five years ago, no-one but the richest high-fliers had a mobile phone; today, seventy-five percent of the world’s population can make a phone call almost anywhere across the globe. These days, a 4G phone call can be made on Mount Everest to an altitude of 5,200m[i]. This means modern authors cannot be lazy. They must work at their plots to ensure they remain realistic in the modern world.

When writing Eavesdrop, which has pivotal scenes in Finland, I had to site some of them in the country’s remoter northern areas away from its capital Helsinki so that the hero couldn’t simply use his phone to tell the authorities what he’d discovered. These days, isolation can be difficult to achieve.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As spy writer Charles Cummings pointed out in an article for The Times[ii], technologies such as number-plate recognition cameras and computer systems that track phone calls and credit card swipes mean a terrorist is no longer able to drive across Europe unseen.  Now, one’s character must have access to credit cards in false names (and must therefore have a means to obtain those, despite all of today’s identity checks), and have contacts who can arrange false car registration plates, as well as access to large amounts of cash without arising suspicion.creditcard

None of these are impossible; they simply make the author’s work harder to maintain realism.

 

Demands on the Modern Writer

As well as recent advances in technology imposing constraints on modern plot lines, they also place a demand on authors to keep abreast of what’s possible.

F16 jetFor instance, hacking and virus generation are now sciences in their own right, and the author needs to be aware of what can be done. Think, for instance, of Israel’s scheme to destroy Iranian nuclear plants in 2008. They could have sent F15 and F16 fighters across Saudi Arabia from their Negev base to drop 2000lb bombs on the reactors as they did in 1981. However, twenty-seven years later they took a more subtle approach.

In conjunction with American intelligence experts, Israel’s software engineers developed a computer worm (a type of virus) they christened Staxret. Once released, the virus spread throughout the world’s computer networks to hunt the specific Siemens computers known to be running the Iranian’s uranium enrichment plants. Once it had infected those in the centre of the Iranian facilities at Natanz, the virus exploited a known security vulnerability of the computer to take control of the plant’s centrifuges. While reporting back to the centre’s control desk that all was well in the system, it secretly sped up the centrifuges to such unprecedented speeds that they started to break. One thousand centrifuges were rendered inoperable before anyone realised something was amiss.

No-one has yet made public how the worm succeeded in reaching the Iranian computers—something it managed to do despite those computers deliberately being isolated from the internet. It is surmised that they entered by first infecting laptops used by technicians that worked there, which were later connected to the main computers during maintenance procedures.

Novelists must obviously know and understand the methods deployed to deliver computer viruses to their target.

DVDThere are frequent cases of industrial espionage, where hackers have succeeded in getting their spying software installed on their victims’ computers. Some years ago, a London couple ran a profitable but illegal business selling trade secrets. Their main tool was a piece of highly sophisticated software (called a Trojan), which they embedded in DVDs containing business proposals, which they mailed to CEOs of a variety of companies. Because their software was so targeted at those individuals, the anti-virus programs failed to detect it, and the CEOs happily inserted the disks into their machines. The Trojan set to work and scanned the companies’ entire computer systems. Anything interesting was copied and sent back to the hackers, who promptly sold them to that company’s competitors.

The modern thriller author must understand these techniques, at least in basic terms, if they are to maintain realism. How? Search internet technology news sites for such stories, and a wealth of real-life examples come to hand from which to copy.

Of-course, Edward Snowden’s leaks have placed details of many high-tech espionage techniques into the public domain, and these can again provide the author with an appreciation of what is currently possible. For example, he leaked information about USBhow the NSA developed an innocent-looking USB lead with a tiny transmitter built into the connector. A spy just needed to break into an office and swap the cable with one already in use (for example to a printer), and they’ve got access to that computer’s data the moment its owner entered their password the next day.

And what about eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations? Although phone tapping isn’t as easy as in the days of copper cable, everyone knows from media reports of phone hacking that it’s possible to intercept cellular phone calls. A common technique is what is known as “man-in-the-middle”, where the spy has equipment that mimics a base station (just google ‘Stingray spy tool’ to discover more). As the victim’s phone comes near, it locks to the spy’s fake base-station’s radio signal rather than the genuine one because it’s stronger. All of the phone’s traffic then passes through the spy’s hands, which he forwards on to the real base-station so that his presence isn’t spotted, while taking a copy for himself. It can even instruct the victim’s phone to reduce the encryption level to make the data easier to decipher.

Accounts of such events are easily available via news articles, and authors should regularly scour such sources.

Next month

In the second blog of this two-part series, we’ll look at what opportunities modern technology brings to fiction storylines.

Acknowledgments

[i] The Telegraph, 5th July 2013

[ii] Has Modern Technology Killed the Spy Thriller? The Times. July 2014

Photographs (freeimages.com) by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.

About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

More About the Author

What a Half Year!

Wow! The last 6 months have been crazy, so apologies for the lack of solid blog entries for that period. I was made redundant in the summer, and taking up a new job is forcing a house move. My time has been consumed by job hunting while simultaneously completing all the DIY on the house so that it’s in a nice state to sell. That, together with searching for a house to rent while this place is being sold, arranging a new school for my daughter, and generally getting ready for the new job has left little time for writing, let alone for my blog.

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The future should stabilize soon, though, giving me the necessary time to commit to these entries. I’m hoping to be back to normal soon with a blog on writers who use pen and paper rather than computer or tablet. I’m itching to getting back to the research for it; it’s proving fascinating.

Free Paperback Giveaway

Goodreads are hosting a giveaway competition of one paperback edition of the thriller Eavesdrop for UK readers. Great chance to face its assassins, high-tech spies and modern-day smugglers for free. It’s been gathering some great reviews on Amazon – comments like “couldn’t put it down” and “past-paced.”

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East Assassins? 

Enter here at Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/193156-eavesdrop

The James Bond Gadgets – Fact or Fiction?

However much one might question the lack of realism in the Bond films, a surprising number of 007’s gadgets have their roots in reality. In this month’s blog, we’ll take a quick look at some of them and examine the science behind such gizmos.

To See Through Walls

For instance, wouldn’t we all love Bond’s x-ray glasses from The World Is Not Enough? We’re talking here the ability to see through a solid object, of-course, rather than the specific waves of the hospital fracture department. MIT recently demonstrated how to use the reflections from radio signals to achieve ‘x-ray vision’, and such a gadget could soon be on the horizon. In fact, they’ve spun off a new company specifically to engineer it into a real

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Fancy Bond’s x-ray specs?

product. The system MIT developed works by beaming weak radio transmissions from an antenna array and recording the resulting jumble of reflections. Powerful software algorithms remove any reflections that come from stationary items to leave behind a picture of anything moving, however slightly. It can detect the motion of a beating heart or breathing lungs in an adjacent room.

It may still be some years before it shrinks to the size of a pair of spectacles because its array of antennas is currently the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and it requires a laptop to run. However, it will no doubt shrink in time—compare the size and weight of the original handheld phone to today’s mobile handset to see how things can improve over a couple of decades.

If you want to learn more, there’s a great description of the system on livescience.com.

To Fly Like Superman

While you’re on the livescience webpage, take a moment to peek at their article on the personal jetpack that’s so reminiscent of Bond’s in Thunderball.  This one is already here and ready to fly. Watch the video of its Australian designer David Mayman flying it round the statue of liberty.

A follow-up version that’s currently under development is touted to be able to hit 100mph. That really must feel like flying with Superman.

Is that a car I see before me?

Of-course, no consideration of 007’s gadgets could be complete without talking about The Cars. How about we start with the Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day, which could become invisible at the touch of its key fob? Although definitely still in its infancy, even this idea has roots in reality.  If you coat one side of an object in a colour display and fix an array of cameras to the reverse side, it’s possible to show on the displays what the camera sees. If done correctly, in theory, the item can seem to disappear because the user sees

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A vanishing Vanquish

what is behind the car. That technology is far from being at the state of the James Bond film, of-course – if the person moves, for instance, their angle to the vehicle would not alter as expected, which therefore breaks the illusion. But technology can overcome even that problem by placing a camera facing the person and using advanced imaging software and face-tracking algorithms to adjust what is shown on the display in response to where they are looking and their angle from the hidden vehicle. So, even this Bond car is not without a grain of scientific possibility.

Another 007 vehicle of interest to tech lovers must be the Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me, which could convert to a submarine.  Swiss innovation company Rinspeed, apparently inspired by that film, designed the electric powered sQuba concept car, which they presented at the Geneva motor show in 2008. It travels on land, on water, and at up to 10m below the waves. Bond wouldn’t avoid the bad guys using it, though, because its top speed is a mere 70mph on land, dropping to less than a disappointing 4mph on water, and not even 2mph when submerged. And, yes, that is slower than one could swim.

Rinspeed

Rinspeed’s sQuba submersible car

Nonetheless, the sQuba shows what’s possible and, if anyone sees a market, engineering time could be invested to improve its racing pedigree.

In case you’re wondering, the prototype was powered underwater by a pair of propellers, with two supplementary water jets to provide manoeuvrability. See their YouTube video for a demonstration. And the cost? This on-off prototype is purported to have set them back $1.5 million. A snip for Q.

And Now the Weapons

Another interesting gadget in The Spy Who Loved Me was the blow-through cigarette that fired a jet of knock-out gas. In real life, a similar technique was used by the Russian assassin Bogdan Stashinsky in 1957, to fire a jet of deadly nerve gas into his victim’s face. At 7 inches long, it was more akin to a cigar than a cigarette, and Stashinksy fired it from inside a rolled newspaper. The downside was an ever-present risk that wind would catch the gas and blow it back into his face, so the assassin had to swallow anti-nerve gas tablets just before putting it into use. Bond was somewhat more fortunate.

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cigarettes can kill

While thinking of weapons disguised as cigarettes, we should also consider 007’s cigarette gun from Casino Royale. Tiny weapons disguised as everyday objects such as these have often been favoured by real spies as well as the fictional. For instance, Washington’s Spy Museum displays a KGB-designed lip-stick gun from 1965, and a pistol disguised as a smoker’s pipe from the 1940s.

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4.5mm kiss of death?

The lipstick fired a single 4.5mm shot and saw use in East Berlin during the cold war. The tobacco pipe was used by the British Special Forces, and was known to be deadly at short range. Where are such weapons hidden these days, one wonders.

Shedding Light on the Situation

At the other end of the size scale is Goldfinger’s laser cutter, with which he aimed to break into Fort Knox. If was housed in an ambulance and could be elevated to rise out of the roof. That, too, is now a reality. In 2015, Lockheed Martin demonstrated the prototype of a 30kW laser, which was able to disable a small truck in just a few seconds by burning though its

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High power Laser

engine manifold from over a mile away. Ouch!

Bloody Nano Robots

To end, let’s go to Spectre, the latest Bond film, and shrink to the size of the smart blood nanotechnology used to track 007’s location. While this is purely fictional (powering such devices to allow them to communicate over large distances isn’t practical), robots small enough to swim in your blood stream do exist. They were invented by a joint team of Swiss and Israeli scientists to help doctors to deliver drugs to precisely the right point in the body. When an oscillating magnetic field is applied, two tiny magnetic  “nano-wires” that make up segment of its body pulsate with it, thereby propelling it slowly through the blood stream.

So, Are They Fact or Fiction?

So not all of Bond’s gadgets are pure fiction, and many of them started life with at least a glimmer of reality. Whether the fiction has inspired engineers to develop matching technology, or whether the writers took the reality and built upon it with their fiction, though, is a totally different question.