We all love listening to stories. One of the great pleasures of childhood is surely the bedtime story – cuddling down, looking through the pictures with dad or mum doing all the voices. As parents, most of us know how our kids often demanded the same story night after night, laughing uproariously at the same old jokes every time.
Not so long ago, speaking books were for the blind, but doesn’t the rapid rise of audiobooks tell us just how much we all enjoy being read to even as adults? I think so.
I’ve started this blog sitting up on the top deck facing out onto the soothing expanse of a calm North Sea with the sun glinting on the water. The ship is on its way back to England after what has been a glorious cruise in the Norwegian fjords. This morning was my last lecture – ‘Great Viking Kings’. It is so rewarding when passengers come up to say how much they enjoyed my presentation. One remarked, ‘You tell a great story. Are you a professional lecturer?’ I replied that I wasn’t sure what one of those was. I did explain that I usually do two or three lecture cruises a year – mostly on history – and give talks back home to local groups such as Women’s Institutes, University of the Third Age, Rotary Clubs and the like on writing crime. I hope I treat the privilege of being asked to speak in a professional manner but perhaps my success, such as it is, lies in the fact that as a novelist, I love telling stories.
Preparing lectures is much like planning a novel – you need a gripping start to draw in your audience and make them want more, an interesting middle where you weave your web and finally a satisfying conclusion that will make them want to come back for the next lecture or book.
Unlike publishing a novel, as a spinner of tales on a cruise, you don’t have to wait long to see how well your story is received. If passengers enjoyed your talk, they will come and tell you and ask all sorts of questions and of course the ultimate test is to see how many turn up for the next talk.
Lecturing on Vikings has made me realise how much the oral tradition is part of our culture. Unlike the Romans and Greeks of the classical world for whom written literature and tales of the gods and heroes were all written down, the Vikings had no written history. All their Norse myths and legends were passed on orally around the campfire at night. It wasn’t until the 12th century, two hundred years after they were converted to Christianity that the great sagas were actually written down. Most of what we know about Odin the one-eyed king of the gods, Thor the warrior god of thunder and lightning and the many other gods of the Asgard pantheon comes from Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic saga writer. The importance of the oral tradition is also born out by importance of the bard in medieval times throughout Europe and in all other societies.
Before any holiday that will involve long coach journeys, I always load my mp3 player with novels. That way I can still enjoy the new landscape and enjoy a story at the same time. Listening to audiobooks is also great way to get through mindless tasks like spring cleaning or even mammoth baking sessions. I have friends who listen to audiobooks in the gym, on bus journeys or even long walks.
I’ve commented in previous blogs on how I believe that the growth of eBooks over the last ten years has brought about a subtle change in the way novelists write – with shorter chapters and a more condensed style. These days when a large proportion of new releases involve not only publication in hard/paperback and eBook format but also audio versions, I wonder if there will be a similar change. I’ve just finished reading a novel with a very large cast of characters. Even when the reader doesn’t have to look back to check up, there is a tendency to pause if a minor character hasn’t been mentioned in the last 50 or so pages. It’s not so easy when listening to an audiobook to put characters in context. Listening to a single voice, will it be so easy to change viewpoint characters, especially if they are written in the first person? Time will tell, but perhaps as writers we should give this some thought.
I’d love to know how others – readers and writers – feel about all this.