A Pilgrim's Progress and other novel adventures

Monday, 25 March 2013

Blue sky thinking

My sister and I used to spend a lot of time with my Auntie Nellie in the school holidays.  Which was brilliant, because she always had something exciting planned - a bus trip, a visit to the fair, or to the races.  But the North East weather often threw a spanner in the works.  It rarely looked promising at seven in the morning.  We would hop about on the back step, trying to work out whether the weather was going to spoil our fun.  Auntie Nellie would always call out, around her first fag of the day, 'Is there enough blue to make a waistcoat?'  We would dutifully inspect the sky.  If we thought there was enough blue showing through the clouds to cover our skinny torsos, Nellie would take a leap of faith, and take us out anyway.  Nine times out of ten it worked out fine.

Which is a bit like writing a novel, really.  Having just finished 'An Act of Kindness'* I've been hopping about on my metaphorical back step, wondering whether to start the next one.  I have a working title - 'A Beast of the Field' - I know who Pilgrim's main adversary is going to be, where and why the first murder is committed.  I know what the main sub-plot is, and how it will tie into the main plot.  But do I know enough to make a start?

I'm not the kind of writer who has to have everything planned meticulously in advance - every twist and turn, every cough and fart.  I'd bore myself witless before I got quarter of the way through. But I still need to know enough to take that leap of faith and start writing.

Do I have enough to make a waistcoat?

I'm not sure yet.  My torso is - sadly - quite a bit bigger than it used to be.  Perhaps I need to keep looking at the sky for a little while longer?

* ok, not finished exactly. There's still a lot to do, but I have to admit to myself that I've got as far as I can without editorial help. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Going underground

Endings matter.  Any agent, publisher or two-bit writing guru will tell you so.  Even my 10 year old son is critical of a sloppy denouement  ('Quantum of Solace was ok, Mum, but the ending was rubbish. I'm not bothered about seeing the next one.')

Fans of crime fiction are particularly picky when it comes to conclusions.  We want the hero to get up close and personal with the bad guy at the end.  With real jeopardy.... and knuckledusters, if possible.  So when it came to writing the penultimate scene of 'An Act of Kindness' I knew I had a fierce tradition to uphold.  I'd planned roughly WHAT was going to happen when my Victorian Detective Harry Pilgrim confronted the Hackney Cab Killer, but not WHERE.

Tower Bridge? Sadly, it was still to be built in 1850, and besides, Robert Downey Jnr has already been been there, done that, got the t-shirt (top hat?) Big Ben? Nope.  Big Ben was nothing more than a horological gleam in architect Charles Barry's eye in 1850.  Then it struck me that I was looking in the wrong place.  Rather than look up for inspiration, perhaps I should be looking down...

Although London's Victorian sewers as we know and love them weren't constructed until after the 'Great Stink' of 1858, several of the old city rivers had been built over on an ad hoc basis before then.  The Fleet seemed particularly promising.  A large stretch of it - from Holborn to the Thames - had been enclosed to build the Farringdon market.  At first the tunnel was used for transporting goods to and from the market, but it quickly became too clogged up and unpleasant for use as anything other than a sewer.


'Last year,' said Fields, gazing up at the map, 'there were thirty-two murders in the Metropolitan area.  Thirty two murders, eighty four assaults, sixty house breakings, nine suicides and twenty eight rapes.'   He swung round to face Pilgrim.  'It's an unending tide of shit, Harry.  And we're the only things stopping it from swamping this sorry cesspit of a city.'

So... the Fleet Ditch it would be.  The next problem was how to write the scene convincingly.  I wanted readers to feel as if they were actually in the tunnel with Pilgrim.  How could I do that if I hadn't been there myself?

I dusted off my Dad's fishing waders, and rummaged in my son's swimming bag for a nose-clip.  And then it occurred to me that a council that doesn't look kindly on tourists cooling their feet in the Trafalgar fountain is unlikely to be happy with a faeces-smeared writer popping in and out of the sewers like a Jack in the Box.  It was going to be more difficult than I thought. 

And then I remembered that I wasn't actually living in 1850. Yay for the Internet!

I Googled The Fleet, and discovered urban guerilla explorer Steve Duncan.  Not only (like Mr Downey) has he been there and got the t-shirt, but he's written about it vividly AND taken photographs.  I was able to write the denouement of 'An Act of Kindess' with authority, without getting my hands - or any other part of my anatomy - dirty. 

So I'm happy to report, this tale has a satisfying, yet sweet-smelling ending of its own.

Follow the link if you fancy taking a trip down the fleet in the company of Steve Duncan


Whistle and I'll come to you...

I've discovered that the police in London used whistles from around the 1820s. Originally they weren’t issued to every officer but were kept for special operations and situations. They only began to equip all officers in the 1860’s.