Monday, 24 August 2009

Accountants, index card boxes and the Forest of Dean

It appears I am low maintenance. At least according to my accountant.

I have, apparently, not claimed enough expenses in the last tax year.

Well, writing is pretty low-imput isn’t it? Even taking into account the internet which I use constantly for research, it’s not exactly a technology-intensive job. And you don’t need posh clothes to do it. Or a car. I keep trying to persuade myself that my laptop needs replacing but, as I generally can't bear to replace anything I own while it still actually works/fits/isn’t actually steam-powered, I plod on, bearing with it as it takes three minutes to log on to the internet and crashes if I even think about having iTunes and webmail on the go at the same time...

I may be about to gladden my accountant’s heart, however, as this weekend will see the Other Half and me and set off for the first of what will probably amount to half a dozen research excursions for The Black and The White. (It's what I heard Antonia Fraser refer to on the radio the other day - quaintly I thought - as 'optical research'. Aka actually eyeballing the places you're writing about as opposed to reading about them or looking at a map and inferring madly.)

To start with, we are off to the Forest of Dean because that’s where my central character comes from. And – hooray of hoorays - the Dean Heritage Centre is running a charcoal burning demonstration over the bank holiday weekend. So, I shall be in my element. I may have to borrow the Ultimate Frisbee Freak’s video camera and record the whole thing. The Other Half suspects I may be mentally preparing myself to back an unsuspecting charcoal burner into a dark woodland corner and fire arcane questions at him for as long as he's prepared to bear it. She says she’ll be in the cafĂ© reading her book.

This has all come to pass thanks to the wonders – of course – of the internet. I was surfing around looking for details of the medieval extent of the Forest of Dean when I came across a reference to the Dean Heritage Centre and its lovely website.

Other things I have been using today as I plot – literally – my character’s journey through the novel are the online Domesday Book which will give you a list of every village in any given county mentioned in the said tax record (excellent for checking whether villages which are there now and look ancient were actually there then looking new) and Google’s map function which enables me to look at terrain as well as where things are in relation to each other. I basically have to get my main character across England while the Black Death rages and I want to make sure he’s taking a sensible route and not choosing to go over nasty steep hills when there are convenient valleys he could be following instead. In theory I can read an OS map perfectly competently, but it's so much more mentally strenuous than letting Google paint you a simple picture.

I also spent a lot of time today toggling between about four different websites as I tried to work out whether the bridge in Gloucester which crossed the Severn in the fourteenth century – a bridge which no longer exists as it crossed a channel of the ever-dividing river which also no longer exists – was inside or outside the city wall. OK, I know I could fudge it (‘…after crossing the river at Gloucester, he….) but I don’t want to. The people of Gloucester barred their gates to all comers to try and keep the plague out (sensible them, shame they didn’t know they should be trying to keep rats out) and I want to put that in. If he couldn’t go through the gates when he needed to, then that would have implications, even for a fudge.

Lest you think all my research is internet-based and therefore shallow and of dubious authenticity I would (if I wasn’t so lazy about taking and downloading photos) include a picture of my current work-area in our kitchen. The table is littered with books propped open, books sprouting yellow post-its like slim pointy fungus, books still waiting to be consulted and dozens and dozens of index cards with spider-diagrams and cryptic notes-to-self on them. For reasons of economy, when I bought the index cards (usually I’m a notebook person but my notes were beginning to resemble the disjointed ravings of a lunatic) I neglected to buy an index-box. However, this means that any minute now I’m going to have to go all Blue Peter and make one out of a cereal box before the cards start to migrate about the house and I lose track of some pearl-like thought or vital fourteenth-century fact.

Or maybe I should just bite the bullet, buy a plastic box and gladden my accountant’s heart….

Monday, 17 August 2009

Anxious times

I am in a state of anxiety at the moment for which I am prescribing myself long walks undertaken at marching pace. These are mostly working.

Why the anxiety? Well...

We came home from holiday to a million things that needed doing and which I had been putting off before we went away. Repairs to our kitchen roof, sorting out issues with our internet service provider, getting the boiler seriviced, thinking about my Mum’s 70th birthday… and a ton of other, lesser things. The list seemed to go on and on. Last week saw most of them sorted, at least prospectively (appointments made etc) but there are always new things popping up.

Then there was the awful shock, ten days ago, of a friend of ours being admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. He’s just started what will be a 2-year course of treatment.

In a less dramatic vein, this Thursday sees both the first full rehearsal of Ancient Stones, Stories Told, my promenade play for Rochester Cathedral, and The Bassist’s AS level results. Both need to go well or the future is going to look bleak.

But, if I’m honest with myself, none of these things actually account for the gut-churning anxiety that’s plaguing me. All of them are difficult in their various ways but I would cope with them.

No, the anxiety-provoker in chief is, inevitably, The Book. The Black and The White. I’m a couple of weeks off being ready to begin writing. Outlines for the big, ‘set-piece’ scenes are beginning to form in my mind and I am frantically trying to decide where to begin the damn thing. (And don’t say ‘at the beginning’ or I may scream…)

I’m anxious because I’m captivated by the story and I DON’T WANT TO GET IT WRONG. I know it could be good and I don’t want to make mistakes at the outset which will compromise the whole thing. I am more excited by this book than by anything since I began my original draft of Testament which induced a similar state of nervous tension. I’m hoping that’s a good sign. Much as I enjoyed writing some of Not One of Us, it was nothing like this.

But there’s a problem. The more I think about my original structure for the book – the structure I discussed with Will – the more I’m convinced it won’t work. And I have a slightly dramatic solution which is also contributing to the lizards fighting in my intestines.

I need to discuss it with Will before I say anything here, so perhaps I’d just better go and compose an email.

More anon.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Back in Blighty...

France. Lovely weather – three weeks in which we only had one day where the weather gods even thought about rain. Wonderful. Less wonderful was the fact that, since we were last there two years ago, something dramatic seems to have happened to the cost of living: it’s now frighteningly expensive. And, as ever, the public toilets leave you longing for Britain

But we did have a lovely time, including me wheeling out my very rusty A-level French (tenses all over the place, can never remember the gender of non-immediately-obvious nouns – A-levels are beginning to be a frighteningly long time ago…) with all and sundry, but particularly our Belgian campsite neighbour who concealed the fact that he spoke perfect English until the last evening. ‘The English – they never learn French, but you’re very good [clearly a lie but flattering none the less] and I think it’s good for you to practice.’

He had clearly had less than wonderful experiences of Brits abroad and was prepared to find my willingness more than compensation for my linguistic all-over-the-placeness. When our conversations revealed that I am more Welsh than English, he decided that this was obviously the explanation for my readiness to speak other languages. The Other Half hastily foregrounded her Irish credentials (50% genetically, 90% temperamentally).

Fortunately, because we live in the bit of England nearest to France, we haven’t come back to wet or dreary weather, which is nice…

Whilst we’ve been away, the work in progress has been on my mind hugely – in fact I can’t remember any of the books I’ve written (6 at the last count) ever preoccupying me so much. I’m hoping this is a good sign – and being able (after my resolution to turn over a new leaf and discuss my work instead of keeping it a deep dark secret until the end of the second draft) to discuss it with the Other Half helped. In fact, she came up with an idea which may go a long way to solving my approach to what was threatening to become the ‘sticky middle section’ of the book.

Now we’re home I’m back to research and while the teenagers – back from their various trek- and frisbee-based jaunts and not yet returned to work – languish in bed, I am reading about the Peasants’ Revolt and general life in the fourteenth century. Oh, and I’m also trying to find a demonstration of traditional charcoal burning so if you know anywhere that offers this, let me know!

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England really is a gem. In research for previous books (mostly Testament) I’ve read a couple of the more academic books that he quotes and have been referring to one of them (and getting bogged down in tables and endless details) as I read his lucid prose. How he manages it, I don’t know but Ian Mortimer manages to give you the most astonishing amounts of information (a digest of the more academic stuff, basically) almost without effort – reading his book feels like chatting with an immensely knowledgeable but highly agreeable person: an absolute treasure trove.

But more of that anon.

Meanwhile, the other thing which has been occupying my mind since we got back a day or two ago and I started the cyber-catch up is: should I be on Twitter?

Are you?

Is it a good thing?

Is it something writers should do?