Friday, 17 July 2009

Comings and Goings

I met up with my editor, Will, last week to talk to him about my ideas for The Black and The White. All the way up to London, on the train, I looked at the notes I’d made, thought more about my ideas, moved the thing on a bit more and - above all – wondered what he’d make of it.

And, of course, his making anything at all of it would be done in the context of what other writers of historical fiction are doing at the moment, how readers are responding to that and how TBATW might fit in – or not – to that context.

As you’ve probably spotted, there’s a vogue at the moment for historical crime, with or without a clear series intent. I’ve just read an extremely good book called The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean which is a case in point. Though more of a historical novel than a murder mystery, there is a murder and it is central to the book and that gave me pause for thought. If somebody this good at time and place (Banff in the stiflingly repressive seventeenth Calvinist presbyterian century) feels it necessary to hang her story on a murder, should I be thinking along the same lines?

The Black and The White is not conceived as a murder mystery. There are deaths (it begins in the Great Pestilence which we know as the Black Death and ends in the Peaseants’ Revolt, deaths are pretty inevitable) but the novel doesn’t concern itself with finding out about how or why these people died. It’s the consequences of the deaths we’re primarily interested in.

But there is a mystery. And a quest. And an obsession. Or two.

So, if it’s not quite going to fit neatly in to what’s selling, is it a goer? And did Will like the idea?

Well, I hope it’s a goer and Will definitely liked the idea.

But, he and I both know that, for it to succeed, I’m going to have to get the central question which lurks at the heart of the novel absolutely right. Nails need to be banged exactly on the head. No thumb-dinging can be allowed, or the accompanying swearing. Which means that I’ve got to get the central relationship and its two protagonists spot on. There’s no real room for sloppy characterisation or anything less than perfectly focussed point of view. I’ve got to get it right.

It would be so much easier to just base the whole thing on a murder. Or at least, I think it would. Maybe that’s just because I’ve never written a murder mystery.

I mean, think about it (the murder option, not my lack of any relevant experience). England in the grip of the Great Plague would be the ideal time and place to hide a murder – if a dead body turned up, nobody was going to look too closely at it to see how the person had died and the fact that they’d been seen – perfectly fit and healthy – on the morning of their death would not need to throw any suspicion on the fact of their demise. The plague had three distinct varieties – classic bubonic plague with lymphatic swellings in groin, armpit or elsewhere which took a week to kill you and was contracted (probably) from flea-bites from infected rats; pneumonic plague which was spread from person to person, infected your lungs and killed you in two to three days; and last but definitely not least, septicaemic plague in which the bacillus entered your bloodstream directly and killed you in hours.

Anyway, murders aside, I’m still reading background stuff for the novel and, when we go away next week, I will be taking a couple of books to continue my research, among them Summer of Blood, the new book on the Peasants Revolt by Dan Jones who you can see talking about the book here.

He’s clearly as mad about the fourteenth century as me.

Before we can get away on Monday, however, there’s still tons to do getting the house in some kind of order a) because I hate coming back to a mess and b) because we have a kind friend coming in to house/cat sit and she can’t be expected to live with our mess.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I suspect I will next appear here when we’re back from our Francophile jaunt.

But, while I’m away, perhaps you’d like to leave your comments on current historical fiction, murder-based or otherwise…

Monday, 13 July 2009

Blogging compliments

As well as being dilatory on my own blog recently, I’ve also fallen behind on keeping up with many of my favourite bloggers so I’ve only just read these very kind words on Juxtabook’s blog.

It’s a privilege to be in anybody’s top ten books of the last decade, but when Testament finds itself in the kind of company Juxtabook mentions (Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood) it becomes even more of a compliment.

I’ve read only four of Juxtabook’s top 12 though two others are on my tbr list. How many have readers of this blog read?

Friday, 10 July 2009

I am still alive...

I have, I fear, been a very dilatory blogger recently. This is partly because I have been busy with the promenade play, partly because I am - meanwhile - trying to fit in as much research and thinking as I can on The Black and The White and partly – no, mainly – because I am utterly knackered. In ten days' time we go on holiday and I can barely wait. Not having a proper summer holiday last year has had a terrible knock-on effect into the whole of the last twelve months and the Other Half and I are determined never to let it happen again. A fortnight off must be taken – a week is barely time enough to begin to relax.

So, where am I on various projects?

Well, the promenade play is now complete and has had its first run-through, though we were minus a number of cast members. Walking the thing through the cathedral raised a couple of issues – for instance the area in which I’d planned to have a murder taking place can’t actually be seen very easily from the position in which the audience will be standing at that point, so we’ve had to move it to a less dramatic but more visible spot – but, in general, it was felt that the action fits nicely in to the space. It does look, however, as if the people with the most to do on the day will be, not the actors, but the stewards whose job it’ll be to chivvy the audience through the cathedral at an appropriately fast clip so that we can get the whole thing done on time!

‘Aren’t we going to have long ‘lags’ whilst the audience catch up?’ a cast member asked.

Bloody valid question, I thought, gnawing some handy fingernails.

‘No’ said our casting director/the cathedral’s education officer who’s also playing The Madwoman of Rochester ‘we’ll just start when we’re ready and they’ll soon get the hang of the fact that they’ve got to keep up.’

Ruthless, I thought, but good… definitely good.

It was great hearing real actors speak my words as we went through the first read-through. People laughed when I hoped they would, nodded sagely at things they hadn’t known but were interested to learn (phew!) and the Green Man – cast for his wonderfully booming voice – is going to be fantastic as he fills the cathedral with his roars and his pagan cries of ‘Where are my trees?’

If it rains, the scene in the garden may be abandoned by the audience but the actors are hardened veterans of outdoor performances and were adamant that the show will go on however drenched they get. Stick some cathedral umbrellas by the south door and at least a few people will come out… seemed to be the general consensus.

There was a sticky moment when I realised that there’s going to be no honeysuckle in bloom in September (an essential prop in one scene) but our costume designer quickly came to the rescue and said she could so something in silk.

Yes, our costume designer. Not somebody’s mum or a put-upon volunteer, a real bona-fide costume designer. The Heritage Lottery Fund have given us a budget for the launch of the interpretation project, most of which is going to go on promenade play costumes. So, instead of having begged, borrowed, stolen and home-made costumes for each scene, we’re going to have the real thing, made by a professional whose last commission was to design all the costumes for a community opera in Lewes. It’s going to give a fantastic visual unity to the whole piece and Berthe (the lady in question) came along to the walk-through and took a whole memory-card’s worth of photos of the cathedral to inspire her and to use as background information. (What colours will stand out against this screen, will the black and white of the Tudor chaplains get lost in the polychrome of the lady chapel and if so what should be done about it, etc etc)

So, the promenade play is all coming together. The little casts for each scene will now go away and rehearse together and learn their lines before the next rehearsal towards the end of August when we’ll ‘block’ moves and start polishing things up. That’s going to be an interesting rehearsal as we can’t do it in situ because the cathedral’s being used for something else (tchah – a cathedral being used for services, how inconsiderate!). So I’m going to have to go around taking measurements at the site of each scene, so that we can mock up the approximate acting area, with columns, altars, steps etc, rendered in sticky-tape and cardboard boxes.

Should be fun…

As for the novel. Well, I’ve now met with Will, my editor, and talked it through, but news of that can wait for the next installment, I think.

As I mentioned, I am knackered…