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 (
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…