I’ve been exploring the loft. To be exact, I’ve been exploring ‘my’ loft, i.e. the one above my workplace, ‘the Lair’. (As regular readers will know, this is a converted garage in the garden; probably the only garage in Britain with a bay window. Don’t ask, the previous owners had some very strange ideas…) The word ‘explored’ doesn’t really do justice to the nature of the operation; it’s impossible to stand upright in the loft, and as the first things that went in there after we moved in are at the far end, with more recent additions nearer the entrance, it’s very much akin to a Time Team dig, working on one’s hands and knees to remove the newer layers in order to reach the really ancient archaeology. The object of the exercise has been to get rid of the vast amounts that are surplus to requirements (farewell, 2004 bank statements) and to make space for more to go up there in the future (yes, books on medieval Scottish history used for deep background research for Blood of Kings, I’m talking about you). But I’ve been making some wonderful discoveries, becoming reacquainted with some old friends, and above all, rediscovering the evidence for the development of my writing career. For example, I’d forgotten quite how much satire I used to write at one time. I wrote quite a bit when I was at Oxford, probably reaching the pinnacle of my career as a comedy writer by penning a sketch for the 1979 Department of Educational Studies revue (Cambridge Footlights, eat your heart out). I continued to write satire during my first teaching job, in Cornwall, and still remember the po-faced reaction of senior management when one of my pieces (thankfully anonymous) fell into the wrong hands – believe me, Headmasters and their deputies don’t take kindly to having their self-importance pricked (and I say that as an ex-Deputy Head). Several of the items in question have turned up. For some reason, I decided that the school bore a certain resemblance to Colditz and thus cast the Head as the Commandant, with senior staff bellowing out orders in cod Allo Allo-style German accents; can’t think why.
However, the most exciting ‘finds’ have been the abandoned drafts of old attempts to write my first novel, and looking back through them, it’s now very easy to see why I gave up on them! They must all date from about the early 1980s to the mid-1990s: they’re all handwritten, and I abandoned that method in favour of word-processing around 1997-8. It’s impossible to date the drafts more precisely, but my hazy recollections suggest that in the early ’80s I was still convinced that I’d be the next Ian Fleming / Tom Clancy / Frederick Forsyth, writing techno-naval-global conspiracy thrillers; one in particular is a labyrinthine plot involving Britain’s first Trident submarine, then just a sketch on a drawing board. (However, I’m quietly chuffed that I predicted one of the submarines in question would be named HMS Vengeance, probably about ten years before that name was actually allocated.) I’ve only dipped into it – the draft is quite long, maybe 20-30,000 words worth, and it now seems pretty excruciating – cardboard cutout characters including standard-issue CIA heavies, and so forth. At that time I was clearly still much more interested in the hardware than in such essentials as character development, and I was still convinced that one simply wrote ‘Chapter One’ at the top of a page and everything would flow naturally and inevitably from there; I hadn’t realised just how much time one needs to spend on plot construction, a longer and more difficult process than the actual writing itself!
At some point, though, the penny dropped and I decided to have a go at historical novels instead. Even so, there were a couple of odd detours along the way. For some reason now lost in the mists of the early 1990s, I started a couple of stories set in the 14th century. Now, I wouldn’t say that what I know about the 14th century fits onto a postage stamp; probably more like the reasonably large books of postage stamps one gets at Christmas. Interestingly, though, one of them seems to be my first attempt to write in the first person, the method I later adopted for the Quinton series, so it clearly played a part in my development. I had a couple of stabs at Victorian-era novels and even bizarrely started a story set against the backdrop of the Welsh religious revival of the early 1900s (as if that ever stood a chance of having ‘bestseller’ stamped all over it…). Much more important, though, was my first attempt at a novel set in the Restoration navy – the real precursor of Gentleman Captain and the entire Quinton series. By now I was clearly putting a lot more thought into the preliminary development of the characters’ back stories, and the hero is – wait for it – a young gentleman captain of Charles II’s navy. What’s more, the villain is … [SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ GENTLEMAN CAPTAIN YET – DO NOT READ THE REST OF THIS SENTENCE!] …a former Commonwealth officer who seems to be loyal to the Crown but is actually secretly plotting treason. But for some unaccountable reason I decided to ignore the entire milieu of the Restoration and the second Anglo-Dutch war which forms Matthew Quinton’s world, setting the story instead in 1679-80. Re-reading the story now, though, I’m quite impressed with some aspects of it; indeed, I’m not going to reveal anything more of the plot now because I think it’ll provide material for sections of future books, if not the basis of the story for something like ‘Quinton 14’!
I suppose what all of the above proves, apart from the obvious lessons about the importance of plot construction and characterisation, is the main message that aspiring novelists might learn from my experience – try, try, and try again! Oh, and tidy your loft every now and again; you never know what’s up there.
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to post Monday; thanks to a tennis-nut friend, I’ll be on Centre Court for the first day of Wimbledon, and I don’t know if I’ll have time to write a post beforehand. Watch this space!
Julian Mackrell says
Interesting. I like the Colditz analogy – sounds a bit like my old school!