Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Sorry this is a slightly premature greeting but I'm going away for a couple of weeks and won't have internet access apart from internet cafes.

So Merry Christmas to all readers of Hawkins Bizarre - thanks for all your comments and support this year and here's to a great festive season!

See you in the New Year.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Future of Literary Hist Fic

I was in Cambridge last week and, of course, I made the obligatory visit to Heffers where, amongst other things (including a happy hour spent in the medieval history section – yes, a whole section, not just a shelf!!) I found Testament in an alcove designated ‘Historical Crime’. As Waterstones seem to have stopped stocking Testament I was delighted to find it in Heffers but, whilst not at all dismayed to find it in a section which is likely to sell more copies than ‘general fiction’, I am slightly bemused to see it described as ‘crime’. Things happen in it which are, undoubtely, criminal but I wouldn’t say that they are the central thrust of the book. Perhaps Heffers is adopting the US publishing/bookselling genre of ‘crime/mystery’. Testament definitely fits into that as the whole thing pivots on the mystery of the wall painting.

The inclusion of my work in ‘historical crime’ made me think, though. The Black and The White would fit much more comfortably into that genre, though it’s not a conventional ‘murder mystery’ format. The book I’m currently researching and planning sits even more squarely in the crime genre. So, am I becoming a historical crime novelist?



Why not? Crime has always been a favourite genre of mine and, when done well and/or innovatively (Barbara Vine, Sophie Hannah, Kate Atkinson, M.R.Hall, to name but a few) it’s hard to beat. And I’m not on my own. There’s a huge market out there for well-written crime.

So am I cravenly going down a route I believe to be more marketable? Well, if I was doing it simply because it would be marketable, that would be craven but I’m not. My preoccupation with history and my love of crime plots were always going to come together eventually. (As it happens, the first novel I ever wrote was a split-time crime novel with a policeman as the main contemporary protagonist.)

But, whether or not I’m turning into a historical crime novelist, all this reflection has made me wonder: with the increasing genrification of fiction driven by publishers’ marketing departments, is there space, any more, for literary historical fiction of the kind represented by Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt or - my own favourite - Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders?

I know that at least one of the MNW hist-fic crew had to resist suggestions that her work was basically a historical romance and fight for it to be a straightforward work of literature.

So, writers and readers of hist-fic, how do you like your history. Is it desirable (by which I don’t just mean ‘more marketable) for books to be ‘history plus’ - history plus romance, history plus crime, history which is basically famous people doing what they did in a fictionalised way? Or is there room for hist lit fic?

And, if so, what’s your favourite? (So I can ask for last minute Christmas books…)

Monday, 13 December 2010

Why the Coalition Government has lost my support

I don’t generally make political remarks on this blog. Normally, I confine myself to matters related to reading, writing and, occasionally, my life as both reader and writer. But, occasionally, politics impacts on those things, breaking through my general cynicism about the populace’s ability to change anything and provoking genuine outrage. The whole tuition fees debate is just such an issue.

It’s not an issue for me simply because it will impact on my family, though it will; hundreds of thousands of families will be impacted on in exactly the same way, some more so. At least only one of my sons will have to pay the new exorbitant fees.

It’s not an issue for me simply because of the hypocrisy and power-hungry spinelessness of the Liberal Democrats – a party I have voted for consistently ever since I reached the age at which I was able to vote because I thought Liberal meant liberal.

It’s not an issue for me simply because of the utterly outrageous burden that the young people of our country are being asked to take on in this supposedly collective belt-tightening, a burden so far in excess of the other cut-and-tax measures as to be ridiculous.

The coalition’s stated aim was to cut by 80% and tax by 20%. Well they’re certainly cutting the universities’ tutorial grant by 80% - a far greater cut than any other public service is being asked to bear - but instead of raising the students’ burden by 20% they’re raising it by 200%. How is that fair? How is that proportionate and equitable?

The government thinks it can get away with that kind of increase because the young are in such a minority that even if they every single person under 25 voted to oust the current government, they couldn’t. There aren’t enough of them.

It’s not even an issue for me because of fatuous comments like the one I heard made during Radio 4’s coverage of the vote on tuition fees last Thursday. Some MP, asked for his opinion before the vote, opined that there were people in his constituency who had no hope of ever going to university and that they should not, therefore, be asked to pay for the education of those who are capable of benefitting from it.

Just how fatuous a remark that is can be seen if you replace ‘those who have no hope over ever going to university’ with ‘those who’ve never had occasion to go into hospital’ and ‘pay for the eduation of those who are capable of benefitting from it’ with ‘pay for the care of people who, sadly, are sick but no responsibility of mine.’

If you want to live in a country where those values are played out, help yourself. Start swimming off the West Coast of Ireland. The outrage over President Obama’s healthcare reforms shows exactly the same ‘it’s nothing to do with me so why should I pay?’ attitude.

The actual issue that is causing me such outrage is the underlying attitude towards education which this whole fiasco reveals. And that attitude is that education must pay its way in a very simplistic money-out-of-individual’s-pocket-as fees, money-back-into-individual’s-pocket-as-increased-income/tax-potential equation.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s philistinistic government of the late 70s and early 80s there seems to have been a growing acceptance amongst our ruling classes that education must be useful in a direct and obvious way. The increasing marginalisation of history, art, music and other ‘non-core’ subjects in schools betrays a mindset which says ‘if it ain’t useful to the common good, they can do it in their own time.’ Well what the hell is the common good if it’s not an agglommeration of all the individual goods?

When I was at university there was a ha-ha line going around that scientists ask ‘what’ and artists ‘why?’

This government needs to ask itself why it thinks having an educated, informed population of enquiring minds is not worth paying for. Particularly when it so clearly thinks that propping up a corrupt and reckless banking system is.

Here endeth the political rant.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Real Book 5!

[Wikipedia cartoon from xkcd cartoon site]

The last book on my list of the five that have contributed most towards my research for The Black and The White is a bit of a cheat because it’s not a book at all. It’s Wikipedia.

In all the current debate – and doesn’t it rage? – over online versus print sources of information there seems to be a prevailing assumption that people engaged in some kind of serious endeavour will always prefer print over web-based information. I think that’s misguided, or at least simplistic. After all, haven’t we all read books that were ill-informed, badly written and just didn’t provide the kind of user-friendly information we actually wanted? Maybe they skated over the details we were after or told us stuff we’d already read a dozen times elsewhere.

I’m not saying that the internet is fool-proof. Far from it. As far as Wikipedia specifically, is concerned, I know there have been gaffes aplenty, but I don’t take uncritically the unreferenced things it says, any more than I’d take those things uncritically from print media. But where the articles are carefully footnoted, I’m prone to take it reasonably seriously.

Where it’s not footnoted or where it has one of those ‘citation needed here’ notes, obviously, I try and check the facts and see if I can find them quoted elsewhere. But you can come a little bit unstuck here. On dozens of occasions, I’ve been checking out a second source of information on another website, only to have the feeling of déjà vu. When I flick back to the wikipedia entry, I see that what I’ve been reading on the other site is quoted, word for word, on the wiki entry. Either the same person is responsible for the information on both sites or the article from one site has simply been lifted and pasted into the other. So you do need to keep your wits about you when verifying facts and not simply think ‘OK, good, this says the same things as Wikipedia’. Helps to have a good audio-visual memory, of course.

That all sounds as if I’m writing a cautionary post instead of a celebratory one, but I think it’s important to recognise any source’s shortcomings as well as its advantages.

So, why do I like Wikipedia so much that I’m citing it as one of my top 5 sources for my book?

Well, what other single source could give you information about things as diverse as these:

  • The exact form of words used in the prayers said for the dead in the fourteenth century.
  • Ditto the ‘hail Mary’ – different prior to some Vatican pronouncement which I’ve now forgotten in the late fifteenth century as it lacked the ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’ element.
  • The history and geology of tiny villages nobody’s ever heard of if they live more than ten miles away. (Don’t forget, my main character was travelling on foot from the west country to the eastern edge of England.)
  • Particular battles that took place in the Hundred Years War.
  • How charcoal is made
  • The difference between ‘bloomer’ smelting of iron and the later blast furnace technique (I ended up not needing to know this but found it fascinating)
  • The history of the Pilgrims’ Way.

I could go on and on.

Of course, a lot of those things were on numerous other websites as well but the beauty of Wikipedia is that it gives you references and links so that you can read up elsewhere about the subject. It’s a great jumping off point and often gives you and overview of a subject so that once you hop on to another site, you’ve already grasped the basics of the subject and are ready for more information.

Have I got shares? I wish….

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book 5 - What the Things You Eat say about The Medieval You

They say you are what you eat. And it’s certainly true that you can tell a lot about people by what they consume, both nutritionally and in a broader sense, as I have discovered in the fourth of the five books that have been most influential to me in writing The Black and The White.

The subtitle of Christopher Dyer’s book Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (actually Social change in England c. 1200 – 1520) could, quite plausibly, have been ‘Seeing the Population as Consumers’.

Consumers: it’s a word with a modern feel, isn’t it? Smacks of the retail prices index and the FTSI 100 and market research. But, once we stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and got the hang of staying in one place and growing things we’ve had the leisure to make stuff. And, once you make stuff, you’ll soon find you make more than you can use. And the market is born.

OK, so that’s a bit reductionist. But the same could not be said of Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. By looking at very dry sources – invoices, account rolls, court records of fines, wills, bills of distraint etc – he paints for the reader a fascinating account of what life was actually like, on a day-to-day level, for the people of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. What did they eat? What did they wear? What kind of houses did they live in? And, above all, why? Why that diet, why those clothes, why that style of house?

I don’t know whether any of you followed the recent series A History of the World in 100 Objects on Radio 4 (also available on iTunes as podcast) but I was an addict and, in one of the earlier episodes the point was made that writing didn’t develop as a literary tool – far from it, it was around for centuries before anybody thought to write down orally-transmitted stories – but for the purposes of administration. Once you begin trading you need to record what you’ve got, what has moved from whom, to whom, and in response to exactly what transaction. Otherwise you won’t know how much you should have and how much money there should be in your coffers as a replacement for the stuff you don’t have any more.

It’s that kind of record that Dyer is drawing on. The vast majority of the written material which survives from the medieval period is not literature but legal and administrative records – manorial rolls, court rolls, parliamentary rolls and, strangely enough, individual records – wills and contracts and leases and so forth, all kept with the manorial records. And all of these deal with stuff. Stuff that people possessed, stuff that they were entitled to, stuff they ate, stuff they wore.

I love nitty gritty details of people’s daily lives and, in Dyer’s book they are very exact. Unlike most general reference books which say infuriatingly generic things like ‘most people ate pottage’ without any attempt at stratifying ‘people’ or explaining the many and varied meanings of ‘pottage’, Dyer’s books is absolutely precise because he’s working from written sources from actual places, often referring to named individuals. A widow from Essex, for example, was known to have had a good amount of vegetables in her diet because the record of a maintenance agreement with a family member says that she was allowed ‘half of the garden for her own use’. (Nobody below the level of aristocrat sat about in a flower-garden in those days – her ‘use’ was growing food.)

Stereotypical views of the medieval world – promulgated by many a Robin Hood film and others of the same ilk – are regularly punctured. For instance, many tenants at Alrewas, Shropshire, were allowed, by customs written down in 1342, to catch fish from the Trent for their own use on the meatless days (Fridays and many, many other ‘fast’ days). So much for the stock medieval picture of the rapacious lord cutting off peasants’ hands for the smallest attempt to feed themselves from what he might consider to be his property.

And, being an economic historian, Dyer is keen to show trends over time. There’s a wonderful graph (OK, wonderful to me, the major medieval geek) showing how the diet fed to harvest workers on a particular estate changed over almost two centuries from 1250 to 1430. And there it is – the sudden rise in meat after the Black Death. In the decade following the calamity, when labour was scarce and therefore valuable, almost twice as much meat is being fed to workers as in the previous decade (or any of the decades before that excepting the boom years of the 1280s). Meat – good thick slices – was being used as an inducement. ‘Come and work for me, I’ll pay you well and feed you better’. I had read in other sources that, after the Black Death, villeins were refusing to do their customary service – work they were obliged to do for their lord – preferring to work for money elsewhere and pay the fine that would result from their defiance of manor law. And there it is, in Dyer’s book, in stark accountings, proof that workers were having to be treated better, proof that their standards of living were rising.

Though I’ve read the book at least twice and dipped in countless times for a detail here, a fact there, I’m going to read Chapter 7 - Urban Standards of Living - again, today. Because A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is set, not in the countryside like The Black and The White, but in Salster, the city I invented for Testament.

I know that the Black Death changed things profoundly in the countryside – or at least that it speeded up change that had been slowly making itself felt for half a century or so – but it had just as big an effect on the towns. That’ll be another post, no doubt!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

I'm not here really...

...there's a long post from me over on the Macmillan New Writers' blog on the subject of fourteenth century fiction.
Do pop over - here - and have a look!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Yet another diversion...

...but a worthy one, I hope.

My fellow Macmillan New Writer and all-round Good Egg, Len (LC) Tyler, is offering his services in an auction to raise money for autism research.

Len will be offering to critique ten pages and a synopsis of an unpublished work (brave man) so go on, you know you want to - bid for it!!

More details here and here.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Another diversion

I just had to break in to the sequence (again) to ask you all - have you read the Guernseay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If not, you really must. I've just read it for one of the book groups I belong to (I only belong to two, don't imagine me out discussing literature every night of the week - when would I watch Spooks or Grand Designs or Downton Abbey?) and i ABSOLUTELY LOVED it.

You know those books that they tell you will make you laugh and cry? Well, unlike the rest, this one actually does. I laughed out loud at the sheer unexpectedness of some of the lines and I cried at the poignancy of the characters experiences.

I'll try and get a proper review up soon but I just had to tell you that, if you haven't read this lovely book, you should do so as a matter of urgency.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Three, The English Year

The past, as has been noted, is another country. Or, if it's not, it might as well be for all the resemblance it bears to modern life. The third book on my list makes this abundantly clear as it details all sorts of customs and traditional observances that most twenty-first cntury people have never heard of, much less taken part in.

In reading The English Year, A month-by-month guide to The Nation's Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night – or rather in flicking through it and consulting it, it's not the kind of book you can sit down and read cover to cover (even the cover takes long enough to read) – you realise how much has changed since the time when The Black and The White is set [ie the mid-fourteenth century].

For instance, did you know that during the fourteenth century (and for centuries before that) the new year was on a different day? Not a little bit different, not a day or two for some weird adjustment of the calendar – months different. The church, in its wisdom, had decided that the December31st/January 1st-style new year was altogether too pagan and had decreed that the beginning of the year must be pegged to the Christian character. So they decided that if Christmas was the pivotal moment of the calendar – the moment at which God arrived on earth and everything in history changed - then the moment at which Christ was conceived must be the beginning of the change. So they decided that the Feast of the Annunciation, aka, the conception of Christ on the 25th of March, would be the beginning of the Christian New Year.

Of course, what with people having been wassailing and hanging out the holly and ivy for some considerable time before the Church got here, things became a bit confused. It seems that, from at least the thirteenth century, January the 1st was accepted by everybody as the official start of the year but the habit of letting the church dictate was hard to shake. Even as late as the 17th century Samuel Pepys refers to New Year's day at the beginning of January, but never changes the year in his diary until March 25th!

Which goes some way to explaining the oddity of financial and tax years coming at the end of March/beginning of April.

This is a dramatic example of what The English Year can tell you but there are lots of less dramatic but more picturesque examples. Kit-dressing at Baslow (Derbyshire) on the 4th of August. (Get your garlanded milkmaid's pail [kit] here!). Church clipping in Painswick (Gloucestershire) on the 19th of September. [Basically a saint's name day from the old word ycleped 'called'.) Hungerford (Berkshire) Hocktide court on the Monday or Tuesday after Easter. (Nobody knows...)

[Both Painswick and Hungerford appear in TBTW, though I don't mention either of the festivals in the book. But, somehow, just knowing they took place gave the feel of the places more depth in my mind.]

One of the things that I found fascinating was how often pagan supersititions were welded to apparently Christian festivals – usually saints' days.

For instance, the 24th of April, St Mark's Eve is, apparently, one of the key nights on which to divine the future. As Steve Roud, author of The English Year, points out 'Certainly, there seems to be nothing in the life or writings of the evangelist St Mark that would deserve this reputation, but the idea was extremely widespread.'

Widespread and wide-ranging, from the sane and familiar dreaming-of-your-future-lover motif to the startling notion that the wraith of your future lover would be summoned to your side; and not just summoned, but called to your side by a 'cake' baked of equal parts of flour, salt and the urine of all those taking part in the ritual!

Then there's St Vincent's day. Nobody knows why St Vincent of Saragossa was so popular across Europe in the middle ages – he doesn't seem to have been martyred in any particularly spectacular or horrifying manner (though ravens did guard his martyred corpse until it could be buried) – but popular he was. And his day was, like St Mark's, allied to divination. In this case it wasn't lover-divination but weather-foretelling of a sub-St Swithin kind. It seems to have been agreed that if the weather was nice on his feast day – January 22nd – then it was likely to be a pleasant year. Not amazing. Just pleasant. Clement. Nice.

He may have been from Saragossa but we English obviously took St Vincent and his weather to our hearts.

Of course it's not all saints and divination and calendar weirdness – though any one of those, ignored, could derail your novel. (Woe betide the historical novelist who doesn't know when the major festivals of the church year were because that's how people way-marked the year and dated their letters. It was 'the Tuesday after Ascension day' or 'the Wednesday before the feast of St John the Baptist' and all that. ) No, there are some plain silly customs in The English Year too. Some we've heard of like the cheese rolling Gloucestershire villagers (Painswick features again – I think it's the hill, Painswick beacon, which does get a mention in TBTW) and some are less well-known like the Shropshire practice of men and women lifting each other bodily off the ground on Easter Monday and Tuesday respectively. A Manchester correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1784 described it:

'The men lift the women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of each leg, and one or more of each arm, near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal position, three times. It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the lower class of people.'

Hmm. Methinks maybe he protested too much and might quite like to have been 'liften horizontally' by multiple ladies of the lower class himself.

So. The English Year. Customs large and small, sedate and mad, lost to history and still practiced. (You have to check out the website for the Mad Maldon Mud Race, described in The English Year as belonging to a category of custom which will be known to future historians as 'started with a discussion in the pub'. Discussion, or in this case, dare.) Customs based on religion – both Christian and pagan – and agricultural practices and beliefs and traditions that have vanished in the mists of time. But all fascinating. And all part and parcel of our world – even as half-recalled folk memories - as well as the world of the fourteenth century.

I'd have made lots of mistakes without The English Year. And I'd have missed out on lots of laughs and 'well I never' moments, too.

Monday, 1 November 2010

A new book begins...

Just a quick diversion from the 5 books theme to tell you that, today, I've started work on my next book – the second in the putative trilogy, provisionally entitled A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. I'm very excited about it, especially as I'm going to be using Scrivener – the research and drafting tool for the Mac – for the first time.

Today I have been reading up about hwo the Black Death changed the English wool trade and mulling over the major plotlines of the book to see whether they gel. More mulling will take place as I read. I'm also trying to work out where the book starts. We've moved on almost twenty years from the events described in The Black and The White and I need to find exactly the right moment to reintroduce the reader to our characters. Which means finding the right POV for the book's opening. Unlike TBTW, which is first person throughout, AWISC is going to be multi-viewpoint.

I love researching and planning a book. Anything seems possible. And it'll keep my mind off the wait to hear the first professional verdict on The Black and The White.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Book No 2

As you might have guessed from the first of my 5 books, there is a vogue at the moment for narrative history rather than what you might call expository history (or some might call dry, factual history). I wonder whether it's the printed word responding to the dynamic way television has started bringing history to life?

Years ago, for my own pleasure - if that's the right word - I read Philip Ziegler's The Black Death – pretty much the standard popular work on the progress of the plague in the thirteen forties – and I was looking forward to reading it again as preparation for TB&TW when, in Foyle's of Cambridge, I came across John Hatcher's The Black Death: An Intimate History. The hardback (it was newly published) has a pretty forbidding skeletal grim reaper on the front and its title isn't as explanatory as the paperback which is sub-subtitled The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis 1345-50.

To almost-quote a well-known advert – it does what it says on the cover.

Hatcher takes us to Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk, one of the almost unbelievably well-documented Suffolk villages that medieval social and economic historians love so much. In those days it was just Walsham, the 'le Willows' being applied in a later century, and if you were expecting a cluster of hovels with underfed scraggy people wandering disconsolately about muttering about how they were done down by their lords (which some recent novels set in the medieval period might have led you to expect) then think again. Walsham, which was home to the people of two manors – Walsham itself and the smaller manor of High Hall - was home to over a thousand people and some of them were pretty well off. The families at the head of the village pecking order held more than twenty acres which made them hugely more than the kind of subsistence farmers most people imagine medieval peasants to have been (and which – to be fair – the village was actually full of).

[I actually bought a book on the villages of medieval Suffolk (not one of my five, not because it's not excellent but because it turned out to be less than ultra relevant to TB&TW) thinking that what was true of Suffolk must be true of most of the country (the current BBC series, The Story of England is taking exactly this line with its in-depth look at the archaeology and records of the Leicester village of Kibworth) but I soon found out that I was wrong. The system of inheritance in Suffolk, was different from the more familiar system of primogeniture practised in most other places – in Suffolk, as in modern France, land was divided between all the heirs which led to all sorts of social difficulties that I don't need to go into here as they don't form the substance of the book. As my main protagonist comes from Gloucester, this kind of thing would have been outlandish to him. Just another example of not knowing what you don't know until you start reasearching your book...]

Anyway, back to An Intimate History. John Hatcher is (I gather) an economic historian but he has the instincts of a novelist. Before he even starts on the main body of his work, he outlines the whole social fabric of Walsham briefly, succinctly and evocatively, in his introduction. Before you're introduced to a single individual in this 'intimate history', you already know what kind of place they live in and which stratum of society they're going to fit into. And a medieval village had as many strata as any town today, believe me. If I hadn't already learned that from Ian Mortimer's book (see previous post) I'd soon have worked it out from this one.

And it's the people – rather than the economic life of the village - who are the mainstay of the book, as the jacket copy leaves you in no doubt:

Agnes sat up with John all night, intermittently mumbling prayers and falling into fitful and troubled short naps. And when she did doze off she was confronted by a crowd of grinning demons striving with their infernal claws to snatch away her husband's soul.

John did not regain hs senses, and soon after sunrise he stopped breathing.

Agnes arose and looked vainly around the bare room. She lit the candle that the priest had sold her and recited the Placebo as best she could. But the words of the prayer which she had known well since she was twelve kept slipping from her mind. As she washed John's body she was shocked to see that much of his skin was now blotched and blackened, and that there were a number of swellings as well as a carbuncle in his groin. She folded him into a clean sheet. Then she fetched some sticks of wood that she washed and dried, and placed them at the edge of the embers in the hearth and waited till the ends blackened and burned to ash. Taking them up she allowed them to cool, and then carefully traced a cross on the shroud, and smoothed and shaped it with her fingers.

We see quite a lot of Agnes in the book, along with many other village characters, all of whom Hatcher has drawn from the astonishingly detailed Walsham manor court rolls.

We follow the progress of summer 1349 when, as Hatcher says, the population of the village was 'scythed in half'. Life, which had consisted of the same ambitions, fears, petty rivalries and major disagreements for as long as anybody could remember, was utterly turned upside down in a way that the villagers could neither comprehend nor, initially, cope with. And, through it all, they are supported by Master John, the iconic 'good parson' of the middle ages; he is the first character we are introduced to and he is with us, almost, to the last. And it is partly through his contacts outside the village that we are introduced to the England beyond Walsham, from the new religious guilds that were springing up in the mid-fourteenth century to the state of medical knowledge shared with Master John by his friend the infirmarer at St Edmondsbury.

This marrying of the intimate history of the village with events in the wider world – and indeed with expository writing on the progress of the plague – is managed by a brief foreword at the beginning of each chapter that places its subject-matter in a wider context. From the inexorable spread of the pestilence to the church's reaction to it; from the role of the monastic infirmarer to contemporary descriptions of the plague (not for the faint hearted) we are given an overview of the progress and effects of the Black Death on Great Britain as well as the more up-close-and-personal account that is the meat of the book.

And it is up-close. We watch people die. We watch family members trying, desperately, to ensure that their nearest and dearest don't die. We watch a village struggling to remain afloat as family after family after family is torn apart. It soon becomes obvious that nothing will ever be the same again.

And one of the things I liked most about the book was the way in which it gave us a small taste of life in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death. We see Walsham's surviving inhabitants understanding that the balance of power has shifted from their lords to themselves, that the balance preserved by too many people fighting for too little land has been upended by the need of that same land to be farmed by a very diminished population. While land is in demand, the power is with those who hold the land; once labour is in demand, well, guess who holds the power now?

I truly admired this book. It read like a novel and I kept forgetting to make notes as I went along. In the end I gave up and just raced to the end. But this turned out to be a mistake as the one failure of An Intimate History, in my view, is its lack of an index. If you can't remember where you read a particular detail, you just have to trawl through the whole book until you find it again.

But that's a small gripe. In general, I can do no better than agree with the reviewer from the Sunday Business Post:

'A compelling tale of ordinary people faced with a horror beyond imagining'


Monday, 18 October 2010

Five Books of Note

There was a great post on Juxtabook the other day about the Five Books blog on which, as its strapline explains, 'every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject'.

It's the kind of site I could stay on all day but that's another story.

Now, I am not eminent but I thought it might be a wheeze to share with you the five books that have most informed my view of early fourteenth-century England and, therefore, the writing of The Black and The White.

So, today, Number One in the list.

I've mentioned Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England before; subtitled 'A handbook for visitors to the Fourteenth Century' Ian's book tells you everything you'll need to know if, unaccountably but thrillingly, you find yourself somewhere in England between 1300 and 1399.

He says in his introduction:

'As with a historical biography, a travel book about a past age allows us to see its inhabitants in a sympathetic way: not as a series of graphs showing fluctuations in grain yields or household income but as an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time.'

His chapter titles show that he is serious. There isn't a whiff of socio-politics or economics about them:

The landscape

The people

The medieval character

Basic essentials

What to wear


Where to stay

What to eat and drink

Health and hygiene

The law

What to do.

It could be any travel book about going to Malaysia or Ecuador or Chad. Except that all the people he tells us about in chapter 2 have been dead for about six hundred years, the landscape he describes has been changed beyond pretty much all recognition by modern agriculture, the growth of towns and mass transport and the advice on health and hygiene is – thank goodness – rendered obsolete by antibiotics and santitation.

But chapter 3 – the medieval character – is revealing. Whilst I agree totally with what he says in his introduction:

'...the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the fourteenth century is an awareness of what it is to be alive in any age, and that includes today...'

he is very good on how they were different.

Consider this thought:

'The word which best sums up the medieval attitude to the Devil, miracles, and everything in between, is superstition. People do not understand the laws of physics, or the nature of matter, or even how the human body functions. Hence they do not see limitations on how their world operates. Their sense of normality is thus somewhat precarious. Anything can happen.'

Well, all I can say is, thank goodness for that, because without that mindset, I wouldn't have a novel. Things which we wouldn't believe for a second in the rational, post-modern, cynical, twenty-first century are entirely plausible in the fourteenth – and one of my main characters relies on his fellow-countrymen's consequent gullibility.

But it's not just what people believed that was different – it was the makeup of the society that believed it. We're used to thinking of a society which is heavily weighted towards the older end of the age-spectrum which is why there is such a mistrust and suspicion of young people – they're a misunderstood minority.

Not in the fourteenth century.

Listen to how it was then. (Or is now in the voice of the book. Ian Mortimer uses the present tense for his narrative as if it really were a travel book for somewhere we could visit):

'between thirty-five and forty per cent of those you will meet are under fifteen... just five per cent of fourteenth century people are aged over sixty-five... Half the entire population is aged twenty-one or less.'

Just that, in itself, would make everywhere look and feel very different. Just imagine your street, your town, your village if that was the demographic spread. Our society wouldn't work – you can't have almost half the population in full-time education – there would be insufficient workers to create the wealth and make things happen.

But their society wasn't like ours. Precisely because of the weighting towards youth, young people grew up faster and were given responsibilities much more quickly:

'in some towns citizens as young as twelve can serve on juries'

'medieval boys.... can marry at the age of fourteen and are liable to serve in the army from the age of fifteen.'

'At the battle of Crecy (1346) the command of the vanguard – the foremost battalion of the army – is given to Prince Edward [known to us as the Black Prince], then just sixteen years of age.'

These are not just random facts I'm quoting at you here. The early fourteenth century demographic is entirely germane to The Black and The White because my two protagonists are fifteen and seventeen. But they are not boys, they are men. Young men, but men nonetheless. Nobody frets about them being out and about without parental permission, they fret about them being out and about at all, given that the Black Death is raging across England.

In my novels I tend not to go on a lot about what people wear – my concern is not to get it glaringly wrong rather than to describe every tunic and shoe – but if I had been keen to wax lyrical about the different styles of town and country, rich and poor, The Time Traveller's Guide would have put me on the right track.

Similarly the various kinds of dwelling people lived in are not hugely TB&TW's concern – my two young men spend most of their time sleeping under their cart, but Ian Mortimer rounds up and summarises a lot of what I had – laboriously and painstakingly – gleaned from elsewhere about the various habitations of men pre-Black Death.

Given that my book is essentially the novelistic equivalent of a road movie, the chapter on Travelling was one of the most useful to me. Who knew how scarce bridges were (very, especially the stone variety) or exactly how much woodland on either side of a highway had to be cleared (200 yards).

I knew that maps were basically as rare as hens teeth and, anyway, no use for directions but to be given an actual request for directions was amazing:

'Good people I go to [wherever]. At which gate shall I go out? And at which hand shall I take my way?'

A character in TB&TW remarks that his method is 'journey and ask, son, journey and ask' which is a slightly snappier version.

I could go on and on about The Time Traveller's Guide. Where else can you find out about underwear, about the games that people played, about the scandalous behaviour of some younger sons of the aristocracy, about female sexuality and remedies for sexual frustration?

If you're remotely interested in social history – or if you're remotely thinking of writing a book set in the fourteenth century – this is an absolute 5-star book.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Paper-trail

While I'm still on the subject of rewriting (as I had suspected, Prospective Agent is snowed under after the Frankfurt Book Fair and has asked for a fortnight's grace before I send TB&TW off to him) I thought I'd address the issue of the far-from-paperless process as it occurs in my house.

Though I try and do as much rewriting/editing as I can onscreen, there is a completely different feel about the printed page and I know that no part of my book is properly combed-through and appraised until I've done it on the page. Consequently, I have piles and piles of A4 printouts of various bits and drafts of The Black and The White hanging about the place. As of yesterday I decided to chuck them all in the recycling bin and just keep the most recent, clean copy.

What does everybody else do with printed-out drafts?

Monday, 11 October 2010


This, Blogger tells me, is my 300th post which seems auspicious because the news today is that my work in progress is finished. (For now).

Yes, after 17 months of research and writing, The Black and The White has reached a version I am happy to send off to my prospective agent.

I have to confess that part of me just wants to send it straight off to my editor, Will, at Macmillan, but the other, more strategic, part of me knows that I need an agent. So, agentwards TB&TW will go today. Actually, I'll probably just give him a quick email first to see whether now might be an appropriate moment to land a longish typescript in his inbox. (Just short of 144 000 words).

As ever, it's an odd sensation to have finished because 'finished' is a decision rather than a distinct state.

I know perfectly well that if I were to start working through it again I'd find other things I want to change but it'd be nitty-gritty, change-a-word-here, remove-a-comma-there stuff so I need to leave it and walk away. I need to look up from my laptop screen and remember what it is I do around the place when I'm not spending the majority of my waking hours with my head in the fourteenth century.

Apart from stuff around the house (anybody know a truly mould-resistant sealant for showers?) the biggest thing waiting to be done is the additional material our publisher wants for the autism book. The deadline for that is the end of October so I need to get a move on with that but I'm actually looking forward to it – it comes from a different part of my brain and is so much more under my control than the fiction that it's rather restful!

As well as that, I'll also be starting on the research and thinking for the next book.

It's a bit like 'the king is dead, long live the king.' The book is finished, clear the desk for work on the next one...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

BBC 4 History (or BBC4 history)

For reasons to do with topography and dodgy aerials we can't get Freeview in our house so I have been late in catching up with several things medievally-related on BBC4 recently.

First off, there is an excellent programme, still airing weekly, by Richard Taylor who describes himself as somebody who 'writes books about churches and the messages hidden inside them'. It's called Churches: How to Read Them. We're on episode 5 now (cued up on iPlayer waiting to be watched) which is going to deal with the churches of the Enlightement period but it was the first two or three – those episodes which dealt with churches from the Dark Ages to the Reformation – which particularly interested me. If you're into medieval history or the history of art and architecture, it's a fascinating and massively informative series.

Then there's The Story of England – historian Michael Wood's programme about how a popular project to excavate various bits of the Leicester village of Kibworth (roughly in the heart of England) can teach us about the history of the whole of England. As the first one was from Romans to Normans, it was fascinating for me. I now need to catch up with Number 2 – Domesday to Magna Carta. And the whole programme makes me want to get involved in archaeology. It's great.

Also waiting to be watched is the second installment of In Search of Medieval Britain – last week about a fourteenth century woman called Christina (which was weird as I have a character in TB&TW called Christiana) who lived through the Black Death, this week about medieval Wales which will be great for me as that's where I grew up. Not medieval Wales, obviously (though that would explain a lot!) just Wales, specifically the West - Ceredigion.

So, lunchtimes are being taken over by iPlayer-watching instead of novel-reading, which is unhelpful as I've got one book group meeting this week (Andrea Levy's Never Far From Nowhere, since you ask) and another next week (Mrs Jordan's Profession by Claire Tomalin).

So, thank you BBC4 – I love you!!

And please can the powers that be put a decent Freeview aerial somewhere in the vicinity of Canterbury?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Language in the Historical Novel

One of the debates that rages - or, at least, grumbles gently – in the hist fic community is about language. Should you, or should you not, use language that is recognisably different from that used in contemporary fiction or what I like to think of as now-fic.

I had fun with this in my (sadly unpublished) last novel, Not One of Us, in which I played with the notion that somebody in the present might have written a supposedly historical document. How good was the language used? Was it authentic enough? Was it, possibly, too authentic?

In Testament, though I wasn't consciously playing with it, the language used in the contemporary sections is markedly different to that used in the fourteenth century sections.

I've consciously ratcheted this up in The Black and The White. Though I had a policy of using Anglo-Saxon sounding words in Testament's fourteenth century bits, I wasn't by any means ruthless with myself. This time, I decided to be far more rigorous. I didn't want it to sound too overtly 'historical' – I wanted to give it contemporary credibility (eg all my people use contractions – don't, won't etc and generally sound like people talking to each other not people going 'ooh, look at me, I'm being all historical) but to mark it, somehow, as different. So I decided to confine myself, as much as possible to English words which had their root in the period.

Now, I'm sure I haven't excluded all those latin-derived words that the eighteenth century grammarians and linguistic style-gurus were so keen to import into English to give it what they considered to be the necessary gravitas – one or two are bound to have slipped in under the radar (in this context that should probably be 'watchman's eye') here and there – but I have checked every time I find myself about to use a word which sounds appropriately medieval. To this end, as I use a mac, I have put on my dock a little dictionary/thesaurus gizmo which means I can check words out without having to go out of my document and online (or open my dictionary which will probably fail to have migrated to whatever room I'm writing in) each time.

Take the word 'bewilder' – it has an Anglo-Saxon feel. You feel that, if Chaucer didn't use it, then he missed a trick. The prefix be- clearly puts it with definitely Old English-derived words like 'bestride'. But no. My dictionary gizmo (powered by Oxford dictionaries so, surely, it must be right) tells me that bewilder didn't come into English until the late 17th century. So, do I use it because it sounds right, or not use it because it didn't appear for another two and a half centuries – at least in print? It's a tough one. I proceed on a case by case basis. If it sounds right, I'll usually go with it and not be too purist about it.

One thing I have learned though is that, as previously expounded in these posts, the fourteenth century is when it all happened for England. The sheer number of words which – when you look up their derivation – fall into the category of 'Late Middle English' (ie early fourteenth to mid fifteenth centuries) is vast. And, I suppose, it's not surprising. With the time taken for English to mingle successfully with Norman French, this period is when English became recognisably English rather than Anglo Saxon (aka Old English). Most educated people can have a go at Chaucer – granted, some of the words have changed their meaning (vertu in the bit below means power, for intance) and some have gone out of use but you'd mostly get the gist. Here are the opening lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

the droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

and bathed every veyne in swich licour

of which vertu engendred is the flour

Not too difficult. But even educated speakers of English would have considerably more trouble if they were presented with chunks of Anglo Saxon. Here's the beginning of the tenth century poem, The Wanderer.

Oft him anhaga

are gebideð,

metudes miltse,

þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade

longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum

hrimcealde sæ,

wadan wræclastas.

I'm guessing that, unless you've studied Anglo Saxon at some stage, that's pretty much gibberish to you. Let's face it, it's even got letters we don't use in modern English.

[If you're dying to know what is says, it's this:

Often the soliary one

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the lord

although he, sorry hearted,

must for a long time

move himself by hand (ie row)

along the waterways,

the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.

Not, sadly, my own work – thanks to www.anglo-saxons.net for both original and translation.]

So, the fourteenth century produced our language, aided and abetted – certainly in terms of speed of uptake by the upper classes – by the Black Death.

But more on that in another post.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Crises in the present tense and their averting

I've now reworked about a quarter of the novel which means, given that it's the quarter that needs most work (the first), that I've done the bulk of the heavy lifting, as it were. But yesterday I had a bit of a crisis about the restructuing. To understand the crisis, you need to know about tense.

The novel, in its previous form (I won't say original form as that beast died long ago after my first readers had read the first 100 pages) began with a prologue in the present tense. We then moved back in time six weeks or so to begin Part 1 of the book which explained how we'd got to the prologue. Part 1 was written in the past tense. At the end of Part 1 we'd caught up with the mood and timeframe of the prologue and Part 2 was written in the present tense.

Since I've now hacked away at those six weeks and made the prologue problematic if not redundant, I decided to abandon parts and to write the whole thing in the present tense. I know, given Philip Pullman's recent remarks, that this looks like a 'brave' decision but I'd always wanted at least the latter parts of the book to be in present tense as it allows for a final catastrophe in the life of the first person narrator more readily than past tense. I also felt (and I made this decision before reading, or hearing the furore about, Wolf Hall) that a historical novel written in the present tense would have a better chance of breaking the barrier between now and then, that the reader might get more readily involved, be more prepared to suspend their disbelief and enter into that world. And, given that the fourteenth century is so long ago as to constitute a really different country, that seemed important.

Anyway, by Monday night, I had got to the stage where I felt that writing it all in the present tense had been a mistake and that Mr Pullman was right when he said that it makes it impossible to show a wide temporal perspective. I began to long for the little asides in present tense which I'd allowed myself in the midst of the past tense narrative, the hints to the reader that things are only going to get worse; I mourned the loss of the moment when the reader finally caught up with the prologue and began racing, headlong to the end. I was, in short, having a crisis of confidence.

So, I printed out the first hundred pages – roughly the section of the novel I've reworked so far - and I began to read with a view to re-winding back into present tense.

But I'm not going to. Because present tense works. Right from the new opening, which has the flavour of the prologue but is now very firmly unknowing of what is to come, I think it works. And, because it works, I now see the tense-devices tricks I was playing with in the previous version as facile and a bit cheap. I went back and read some of the asides and found them artful (not in a good way) and nose-tapping. I've never really been convinced by obvious foreshadowing of the 'if only I'd known then what I know now' variety in other people's work, so why was I perpetrating a slightly more sophisticated version of the same thing in my own?

I like the new present-tense narrative. It's taughter. Interestingly, despite cutting the slides into present from past, it feels more emotionally keyed-up, not less. And it also makes flashbacks much easier to write. There's no convoluted use of the pluperfect in the seguays from main narrative past tense to flashback past tense; as we spring back into the main narrative with a sprightly 'now' it actually means 'now' and not 'in the main timeframe of this book which is set in the past and is actually, therefore, then'. And I'm finding that having the main character reflect on the past from the standpoint of a present to which he cannot possibly know the resolution gives his recollections a poignancy which they wouldn't have if he was already in the past, narratively speaking.

Gold stars to those who kept up with that.

So, crisis over. Others may not like it, specifically putative agent and subsequent editors, but at least I like it now. And that's a huge part of the battle for a decent novel, isn't it?

Friday, 17 September 2010

Rewriting - advice

While I am engaged in the re-write all this seems very germane. I'm particularly interested in Elmore Leonard's opening advice - cut, rewrite then cut and rewrite again.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Rewriting the Novel - everybody's at it!

There's a lot being said at the moment by Macmillan New Writers (eg here and here as well as here at HB) about the rewriting/editing process and it's obvious that there's something of a divergence of opinion on the whole process. Some love it, some dread it.

I'll come clean, now and admit that I really enjoy the process of rewriting. I enjoy it so much that I'm constantly at it. I edit a huge amount as I go along. At the most basic level, I'll change a sentence twice or three times in the writing of it, just because I'm thinking and working out and weighing up the sound of the thing as I go along.

This will correctly suggest to you that I don't know what a sentence is going to sound like until I've actually written it; I have a vague, subconscious feel of what's happening and the act of writing turns this into something more real, more concrete.

I remember reading an interview with somebody, once – I think it was Mary Wesley – who said that writing on a typewriter made you far more economical with words and less prone to having to rewrite as you had to work out each sentence in your head before you started. That wouldn't work for me. Not at all. I'd go into terminal stall. I need to find out what a sentence is going to say by watching and listening to it unfold. And then rewriting it so it says it better. And then again. And then I'll move on to the next sentence.

But the editing doesn't stop there. That's the beginning. At the end of each day, I go through the day's output, rewriting, cutting, adding, trying to get it exactly right.

The following day, I read the previous day's work again, out loud. Again, I tweak sentences, add, cut and re-think. That'll take an hour or two. Then I start writing new stuff.

I'll go through the whole thing again when I read through the chapter before I add it to the file containing the whole of the work to date. That means each chapter has been through numerous batches of rewriting before I've even got to the end of what we probably shouldn't call draft one of the novel.

I can hear your question now. 'What the hell is there left to rewrite at the end?'

Well, actually, quite a lot.

In just the same way that I don't know what a sentence is going to say until I've written it, I find it really difficult to structure my books until I know what they're really about.

Let me explain what I mean when I say 'really about'. I'm not talking about plot, here. I know roughly what's going to happen – the beginning, the end, a few key events in between - before I begin, but what I don't know is what it's all going to turn out to mean. I don't start writing thinking 'ah, this is a book about loss/alienation/fear of being abandoned/insert your own overarching theme' I just wait to see what things emerge. I may have a notion of what will turn out to be important, but I'm loath to commit to that before seeing how my characters interact with each other and where they go with the action I've sketched out for them.

The other thing i'm often hazy about is motivation. If you know what happens but you want to let your characters develop naturally and not force them into some kind of cardboard cutout persona, then you're setting yourself up for a lot of reworking. I've spent a lot of time whilst writing The Black and The white getting to grips with why one of the characters does a particular thing – not just any old thing, a seminal thing that sparks the whole of the action. I tried one motivation but the whole thing just wouldn't gel – I was trying to force the issue and rely on my own interpretation to decide why he did it rather than just writing the story and letting him show me why he did it.

OK, I've just read that and it sounds flaky. I used to hate it when heard authors saying 'my characters just did this' or 'they just wouldn't do what I wanted them to' and I'd think 'they're your characters, make them behave!' But the truth is, if you're writing character-driven fiction they're only your characters up to a point. And after that point, they're you (or your unruly subconscious) and are you always under your own rational control?

So, anyway, the point is, I can't work out the best structure until I know what the important themes are and I can't decide why the events of the plot happen until I know who the characters are, and I can only find out both those things by writing the damn' story. [The whole 'write your characters' biography down to their earliest memory and their inside leg measurement' thing has never worked for me. I've tried it and one of two things happens. Either the characters fail to become real and I'm just making the whole thing happen rather than finding out what really happens, or the minute I start writing the book, they become somebody else and I might just as well not have bothered with the whole biog thing.]

The point of this rambling is that I'm always going to be stuck with a certain amount of structural rewriting because of the way I allow my novels to develop.

At the moment, I'm managing to cut at least half the material from the first 70 pages because I now know what matters and what doesn't, and also because some of that material needs to come later in the book for reasons of character development and suspense. But I couldn't possibly have written the book in its current (ie rewritten) form from the beginning, because I needed to find out a) what it was really about behind the plot and b) who these people really were behind the vague notions I had of the characters moving my plot forward.

Given all that, it's a good job that I like rewriting, isn't it?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Rewriting the Novel - Day 3

When you're rewriting/reworking your novel – as I am – and you have jumped to page 38 and started there instead of continuing to allow your novel to begin on page 1 like any sensible person, you need to decide what to do with all the information contained in pages 1-37.

I am deciding this by reference to a list of questions I have asked myself. I jotted them down at the beginning of work on Monday under the inspiring heading 'Questions that need to be progressively answered.'

They emerged in no particular order and I shall quote them in full for your bafflement:

  • Who is the saint?
  • What has happened to M and what did the saint have to do with it?
  • What happened between M and his F and why/how? (I would leave you to guess but, prosaically, F = father)
  • Birds.

This last is not a question, just an aide memoire.

Of course, how to do backstory is a question a million writers before me have had to answer. That is, after they've answered the far more important question – is any of this backstory necessary?

It is necessary. Honestly.

And, now I've got M feeding the reader titbits of his backstory instead of laying the whole thing out in one go, there's a lot more scope for the unreliable narrator thing.

I like unreliable narrators.

Or do I?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Strings and bows

No work on TB&TW today as I have been pursuing a non-fiction publishing deal. As you may or may not know, I work at a secondary provision for boys with an autism spectrum disorder and my boss and I have co-written a day-to-day survival pack for teachers that we've provisionally entitled The Really Useful ASD Pack.

Speechmark, a publisher that specialises in educational resources, clearly think that it would be really useful because they're going to publish it. So, today, my boss, Jan, and I have been meeting with them in Milton Keynes to discuss additions to the material we've already submitted, contracts, timeline etc.

We're all actually quite excited about it!

Since everybody in the writing business is being told that they must diversify and have more than one writing string to their bow, turning to non-fiction seems like a good idea. Speechmark would be interested in us producing more books for them, too, which is good news.

I shall be at work at the aforementioned secondary provision tomorrow, so no rewriting will be done tomorrow either. But I shall be up at the crack of dawn on Friday getting on with it.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Rewriting the novel – end of day 2 - not The Road

Today, things are beginning to take shape. I'm beginning to see how the new, streamlined beginning of The Black and The White is going to work.

I've decided that the best place to begin is with chapter 5. However, that does not mean that I am simply jettisoning the first 4 chapters, in a bid to out-extreme-edit Nicola Morgan (see previous post for details).

No. Fortunately, I have not allowed myself to be so self-indulgent as to write four irrelevant chapters. But...

The big but is the book's structure. The novel is a quest narrative and, fairly obviously, the main character needs to get off on his quest as soon as may be if the reader's not going to be sitting there tapping a foot and looking at their metaphorical watch. Until today, 'as soon as may be' effectively meant page thirty four, halfway through chapter 4. As of today, it's page one.

OK, now I've said that, readers of HB are likely to fall into two camps:

Camp 1 - Of course it needs to be page one! Not to start with the quester on his quest on page one is like starting Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the marriage of Goldilocks' parents and their subsequent rather uneventful honeymoon in Colwyn Bay.

Camp 2 – You can't just wave him off on page one! How is anybody supposed to know what the quest is all about if he's already setting out on it when we first clap eyes on him? Where is the princess with the demanding line in tests of commitment? Where's the king who doesn't really want anybody to marry his daughter and stage a hostile takeover bid for half the kingdom? Or whatever.

And there, friends, is the dilemma. Yes, if it's a quest narrative, he needs to be on the quest, hanky-wrapped belongings over his shoulder on a stick. (No, my character doesn't have a hanky - a) a handkerchief, as such, would be anachronistic and b) it would be altogether too Dick Whittington.) But there's also the need not to leave the reader totally in the dark as to why he's on the quest at all. (Which, by the way, is what Cormac McCarthy does in The Road. I have to admit, I didn't get more than halfway through TR because it is depressing to a horrible degree but there was never a sniff of an explanation of where they were going or why they were going there. Call me picky, but I'd have liked to know. I'm told, by those who have actually got to the end of TR (son no. 2) that I'd have been none the wiser (just much more depressed) if I'd read to the end. 'They go south' he said, when I asked. 'Why?' I asked. 'Because south is where they're going' he said.

Anyway, rant over. Let's re-focus on the novel I actually can re-write as I like.

OK, I acknowledge that 34 pages before the waving off with the hanky-wrapped etc. is probably being a little too generous with the scene-setting. But a lot of what happens in those pages is going to have to go in somewhere. Some of it – maybe five pages – has already been slid (in substantially modified form) into what were chapters five and six and are now chapters one and two. (Stay with me here.) The reader is getting the information in a significantly more oblique form than previously and, in a novel with a strong mystery element, this can only be a good thing.

So; so far, so good.

You'll have to keep reading if you want to see how I decide to deal with the remaining couple of dozen excised pages and their associated information.

And I may have to rant some more about The Road, because two of the four people who have, so far, read portions of The Black and The White have compared it to that depressing (but yes, I know, very literary) work. But you'll have to wait and see.

Reworking the novel - day 2

So, I've fallen at the first hurdle. Failed to blog yesterday as I spent the evening editing a short story for a friend. A very good short story, I'm pleased to say, and one which needed only a tweak here and there rather than some kind of root and branch hacking.

Anyway, the rewriting. I started yesterday morning with a huge brick of 412 typescript pages sitting on the dining room table. The structural element of the rewrite is going to consist, largely, of deciding what elements of the first 75 pages are really essential and deciding how to weave them in elsewhere in a felicitous manner.

Reading those first 75 pages again, I recalled a recent post on Nicola Morgan's blog that contained this advice on editing:

  • Shorten chapters, unless they are already stupidly short. Alter the places where they begin and end so that they usually end mid-action. Give every chapter a knife-edge beginning and ending. Do not let your reader stop reading.

  • Remove much more description than you want to.

  • Ditto with back-story, philosophy, scene setting and world building. Just because you know it, doesn't mean the reader needs it. Think iceberg.

  • Remove at least two of the first five chapters. Just do it. See what happens.

  • Remove all your favourite sentences.

Now, for me, some of those are a bit extreme. The last one, specifically. But, in general, I take her point. Self-indulgent writing is no good to anybody and will just be flicked past, if the book is read at all.

My chapters are already pretty short but, as she advises, I'm not sure all of the first six need to be there. Ms Morgan would undoubtedly dismiss chunks of them as world building/back story/scene setting. Can I remove two? Yes, though bits of them will need to turn up elsewhere.

She's right about description. I like a well-turned phrase as much as (probably more than) the next reader but if the description goes on too long, however exquisite it is, I find myself skipping to the next salient bit. So I've always favoured the 'key but telling details' in terms of description. Less is very definitely more.

So, what do I have at the end of my first day of reworking?

  • Five paperclipped chapters with bits of text highlighted and 'put this in when/after/before...'

  • A completely reworked first chapter.

  • A mild feeling of having ended up with a ball of string composed of five different strands which I now have to untangle into a single thread.

As AL Kennedy would say, Onwards!

Later: Not sure why the font changes halfway through that post - sorry!