Sometimes – very, very rarely, but sometimes – thinks click together in an unexpected but beautiful, seemingly preordained way. This is the moment called ‘serendipity’, and it’s doubly appropriate in this case, as that was part of the official pedigree name of my first dog.
(‘Peredur Serendipity’, since you ask – a distinctly wilful dachsund whom I christened Perry. And no, Russian hackers, none of those words are in any of my passwords, and I don’t use the ‘name of first pet’ option in security questions. So sucks to you, Vladimir.)
As mentioned previously in this blog, I’m currently in the distinctly unusual situation for an author of having to double the length of a book, rather than going through the usual purgatory of trying to edit something by culling vast amounts of purple prose. This is the first of my planned Tudor naval trilogy, originally intended to be novellas, now growing exponentially into full-length novels to be published by Canelo. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to expand a story so much, and it’s a steep learning curve. Simply tinkering with the existing text isn’t enough; you don’t get from 40,000 words to at least 80,000 by adding more adjectives, and although the extra space for character development is very welcome, an extra 40,000 words (or more) is one heck of a lot of character development…
So I knew I’d need to add some extra chapters, including additional events, new characters, and even an entire sub-plot, something you don’t really have the space to include in a novella. I had the additional events sorted in short order: when you’re talking about the reign of Henry VIII, after all, one thing that no historian or novelist lacks is juicy material. But the new characters and the sub-plot were proving a little trickier. Then I decided that one passage in what I’d already written would permit a flashback scene, in which my central character encounters the holder of a particular office. Now I needed the name of that office holder at that particular time, so went to the dreaded-but-indispensable Wikipedia, and found that the holder of said office was somebody who, to avoid spoilers, I’ll call Han Solo.
(Do you have any idea of how difficult it is to write a blog like this without spoilers?)
Of course, I’d come across the name of Han Solo before (* avoid gratuitous Millennium Falcon joke *), but realised it would be a good idea to know a bit more about him, e.g. to see if there were any portraits of him that I could use as the basis for a physical description. This meant going to the good old Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. No picture, alas, but some interesting detail about his life…and as I read on, it became very, very interesting detail indeed…and then the timing and circumstances of his death couldn’t have been more perfect for my narrative. All I needed now was a supplementary character to provide the link between the hero and Han Solo (* avoid gratuitous Princess Leia joke *), and hey presto, the sub-plot came into being. Hopefully, by the time the finished article is complete, nobody will be able to see the joins! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is very much what you call serendipity.
Seriously, though, it demonstrates a point that’s absolutely critical, in my opinion, for all writers of history, be it fiction or non-fiction, at any level whatsoever. Never be content with a narrow focus on just your specific area; I know plenty of people who’ve spent so long burrowing deep into the research materials for their particular niche that they’ve completely missed huge aspects of the bigger picture. Context is all, and it’s vital to know what else was going on at the same time – e.g. when I was doing my doctorate in naval history, I realised pretty quickly that to do it properly, I needed to be across the latest research in political, economic, religious and social history, and so on and so forth. Even for a novel, looking at such a broad picture is vital. Personally, something I often find useful on the still-dreaded-but-indispensable Wikipedia is its provision of entries for individual years. Type in any date of your choice and take a look at what was going on; the list of deaths often throws up some useful little connections. And let’s all count ourselves fortunate – nay, serendipitous – that we no longer have to research such things by making a special trip to the local library to spend hours ploughing through the Encyclopedia Britannica.
A couple of quick announcements to end with. For those within range, I’ll be talking at Hitchin Library, Hertfordshire, at 11am on Saturday 9 June, my title being ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Nautical Fiction’ (more detail on the library’s Facebook page and Twitter account). Finally, regular readers of this blog will recall that, three years ago or thereabouts, I devoted rather a lot of posts to the calamitous situation at the Carmarthenshire Archives Service, where mould was discovered in the strongrooms, leading to the indefinite closure of the record office and the despatch of the entire collection for cleaning, rendering it inaccessible. This was a huge blow to me, as it denied me access to the principal materials I needed to complete my book on the Stepney family. However, and to be scrupulously fair to all concerned, it’s only right for me to point out that the entire sorry saga is now pretty close to a happy ending. All of the documents are now available again, albeit in Cardiff – or at least, when I sent Glamorgan Archives a list of particularly vital Stepney manuscripts, they were able to confirm that they were all there and all open. Better still, this week work starts on the brand new archive facility in Carmarthen, and having seen the plans, I can only think that maybe, despite all the grief it caused me and all the expense it’s caused the Council Tax payers of Carmarthenshire, this saga has proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Finally, there’ll be no post next week due to the Bank Holiday and general stuff (a little-known Swedish commander of the Thirty Years War).