That’s the question I came up against when I wrote my neolithic murder mystery Talus and the Frozen King. While the novel is unashamedly inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories about Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes, I was determined that my tale of ancient crime and punishment should never descend into parody.
However, alarm bells rang loud when early editorial feedback (though largely positive) included the dreaded phrase “occasionally reads like a Holmes pastiche”.
After much discussion – and even more agonising – I decided one of the big problems was the way my hero Talus spoke. Early on in the writing, I’d elected to give him an extravagantly modern – and frequently convoluted – mode of speech. I thought it was an entertaining way to illustrate how this neolithic bard’s thought processes are light years ahead of his prehistoric peers.
How wrong I was.
Luckily, changing Talus’s mode of speech went a long way towards lifting the “pastiche” curse. The novel still wears its Holmesian heart on its sleeve, but in its final form it stands firmly on its own two feet, honouring rather than imitating the source.
To illustrate the way things changed, here’s an extract from the first chapter both in first draft, and as published. Comparing the two now, the shortcomings of the early version are glaring to me. But that’s first drafts for you. Read and compare the two, and see if you don’t agree.
Talus and the Frozen King – Chapter 1 Extract – FIRST DRAFT
‘Are we still going down there?’ Bran said, knowing the answer already.
‘If we leave now, we will reach the causeway at low tide. Then we may cross.’
Bran rubbed his aching head, fending off exhaustion. By the light of the stars he could just make out a dark line running beneath the waves from the island’s shore all the way to the mainland, like an underwater path.
‘A causeway?’ he said. ‘How do you know?’
Bran opened his mouth to argue. Then he remembered this was Talus he was talking to, and closed it again. The screams came and went on the wind. There was movement among the houses now, barely visible: ants scurrying in their nest.
‘I suppose you know everything there is to know about that island.’
‘No man can know everything, Bran …’
‘Oh, so Talus admits the truth at last!’
‘… but in answer to your question: I have made certain deductions about our destination. Do you wish to hear them?’
‘Do I have a choice?’
‘The islanders are independent. Orderly. Convivial within their own borders but inclined to defensiveness. Hierarchical and devoted to tradition. Reclusive and, if you will forgive the pun, insular.’
‘I swear you make these words up, Talus. Nobody else uses them.’
‘I say what I think.’
‘But nobody else thinks like you.’
Talus moved his hands. He looked like a man trying to sculpt something out of the air.
‘I am Talus,’ he said at last. His voice had a hesitant quality that surprised Bran. ‘Sometimes there are no words for the thoughts with which I am cursed. Perhaps one day those words will come. Until then, my only choice is to be myself. I am what I am, Bran.’
‘Aren’t we all.’ Bran was not sure he liked this new, uncertain Talus. ‘So what do these particular words mean?’
Talus dropped his hands. He was a head taller than Bran, and willow-thin. His eyes stared, bright and alert. It confounded Bran that his travelling companion never wore a hat, despite not having a single hair on his head.
‘A fool could make the deductions I have made,’ Talus said. Bran relaxed. This was more like the Talus he knew: confident, with the merest whiff of a sneer. ‘As we have both observed, tribesmen hereabouts live in mainly the glens, yet these people have chosen to live on an island. So they are independent. Their houses are arranged in neat circles. So they are orderly. Do you wish me to continue?’
‘Like I said — do I have a choice?’
‘All men have choices.’
‘Are you going to tell me or not?’
‘Near the shore they have constructed a defensive maze. Yet their dwellings are centred around clearly defined communal spaces. Hence a community that protects its borders but which celebrates its own company. Their devotion to tradition is implied by the many totems placed around the shore. I imagine these people worship the more common spirits of the afterdream.’
‘You imagine? You mean you don’t know?’
‘On that particular point I am prepared only to speculate. As I have already said, Bran, no man can know everything. But here is my final point: the limited access provided by the causeway proves these people like to keep themselves to themselves. In short, I do not believe they will welcome visitors.’
‘Come, we must hurry. It will soon be dawn. But … I do not believe you will be needing that.’
Bran realised he was still brandishing his axe. With a wry smile, he hung it back on his belt. Talus kicked snow on the fire; the flames hissed and died. Black smoke wafted skywards. The peat that had fuelled the fire had not burned well, but its warmth had been welcome. Talus busied himself with their packs, stowing their few belongings and making ready to leave.
Talus and the Frozen King – Chapter 1 Extract – FINAL
‘I suppose you want to go down there,’ Bran said, knowing the answer already.
‘Of course! If we set off now, we will reach the causeway at low tide. Then it will be easy to cross.’
Bran rubbed his aching head. Whatever tragedy had struck these villagers, it felt remote to him. He had troubles of his own. ‘Causeway?’
‘Look with your eyes, Bran. See? That dark line beneath the water?’
‘All I see is an island, Talus.’
‘Looking is more than just seeing. I suppose it is possible you might learn that one day.’
Bran’s fist tightened on the axe haft. This wasn’t the first time he’d felt the urge to bury it in his friend’s head. Not that he would ever hurt Talus.
Except hurting Talus was exactly what he was planning to do.
How would Talus react when Bran told him what he’d decided? Bran didn’t know. He just knew the time had come to say what he needed to say.
He opened his mouth, but the words refused to come out.
Talus took a step nearer the edge of the cliff. He was a head taller than Bran, and stick-thin. His eyes, bright and alert, stared down at the sea. It confounded Bran that in the middle of winter his travelling companion never wore a hat, despite having not a single hair on his head.
‘That island is surrounded by more than just water, Bran,’ Talus said. ‘It is surrounded by fear and mistrust. Its people are alone and afraid. They need help.’
‘How can you possibly know that?’
‘How can you not? Think about the other tribes we have met in this northern land. Where do they live?’
Bran wasn’t in the mood for Talus’s games. Nor did he have the energy to argue.
‘I don’t know. In the glens, I suppose.’
‘Exactly! In the glens. I see you are at least half-awake. The glens offer shelter from the hard weather and the hunting is good. But these people choose to live on an island. Instead of comfort, they choose isolation. Why?’
Bran regarded the snowbound landscape. High hills rose swiftly into even higher mountains. The skyline was coarse and craggy, like a row of broken teeth.
‘I wouldn’t call any part of this land comfortable,’ he said.
‘Look near the island shore. See the maze they have built there?’
All Bran could see was a pattern of shadows marking the island’s terrain. If Talus said it was a maze, who was he to argue?
‘And you will of course see the totems placed around the shore.’ Talus pointed.
Bran saw little dots. Maybe they had faces. ‘Spirits of the afterdream. Nothing unusual in that.’
‘Indeed. But do you see their expressions? They are twisted and their mouths are wide open. They are screaming, Bran.’
Bran shivered, not just at the winter wind. Maybe the screams they could hear weren’t coming from the villagers at all. Maybe they were coming from the totems. Not the screams of the living, but the screams of the dead.
‘You can see all that from here?’
‘How can you not? Come! We must hurry. It will soon be dawn. But… I do not believe you will be needing that.’
Talus placed his hand on Bran’s axe and pushed it down to his side. Bran hadn’t even realised he was still brandishing it. Feeling a little foolish, he hooked the weapon back on his belt while Talus went to kick snow on the fire. The flames sputtered and died, and black smoke wafted skywards. The peat that had fuelled the fire hadn’t burned well, but he was already missing its warmth.