It’s been a quiet year, all told. Personally, I hate quiet years they lead to a slowing down of creativity and inertia sets in. That doesn’t fit well with me, as the loss of drive affects me in every day life. Writing is an integral part of my life, when it’s not happening, I feel a huge gap.
The release of Forest Brothers was quite a high point and the sales in the UK, Europe and N America have been a joy. Not in the numbers that would see me cast aside the day job in wild abandon, but enough to justify the release in the first place. The immediate question that a few readers asked was ‘what happened next?’ Initially, I did not know. The story was a one off, allowing me to weave a tale within a backdrop little known in my country. Slowly, an idea came into being that furthered the lives of my lovely characters. This however, was a prequel, focussing with the Estonian characrters and fleshing out their back story. There was a time when it appeared that this would be picked up, but I would say that three years on, that particular avenue is unlikely to happen. I need to look if there are other options to pursue this project and I must admit, it would be difficult not to desire that. The story burns too brightly within!
In the meantime, a sequel has also been written, charting further adventures of the Anglo Estonian family, as war ends and they become involved in the hunt for the traitor, Gdfrey. A trilogy would make a good balance to the tale. However, what the post-Brexit effects are on the market for foreign settings in literature remains to be seen. The three books each have antagonists from different international backgrounds, thus subscribing to Sting’s lyric ‘there is no monopoly in common sense, on either side of the political fence.’
Another book is in the pipeline, as the opportunity has arisen to further an earlier project. This is set in Victorian Mid Wales and focusses on a young man’s journey. He runs away from home, falsely believing he has killed an assailant. The story focusses on how he rebuilds his life and reconnects. It features the railway I work for and so has an immediate point of interest to some. Circumstances beyond my control have unfortunately allowed this project to stall and there is no date of completion.
Now in the great scheme of things, this is small beer. Thinking of those made refugee by conflict or forced to food banks to make ends meet and in that sense, I am grateful of my own interesting times by comparison.
Writers do crave recognition and the chance to produce something. The worst time for them is that point where the fair wind drops and they are left searching for a steady breeze to continue their journey.
Imagine a community of working families, living in rows upon rows of terraced houses on the steep valley sides. Nobody’s rich, but they get by. There’s a spirit there, a bond that all small communities have. Everyone looks out for each other. As it always has been.
It’s a typical October day. The heavy rain from the night before has stopped and the morning warmth leaves a mist above the rooftops. The low grey cloud smothers the steep-sided valley, making it difficult to see from one end of the village to the other and nothing above.
The last day of term, a week off! The children look forward to their holiday with glee. Some may not want to go to school – what’s the point for one day? Some look forward to carefree playing with their mates on the hills above without any lessons.
The school sits in its place at the top row of buildings, filled with the sound of children. Their laughter full of the joie de vivre that only the young can bring to a place such as this. The adults have gone to work, the children have gone to school. It’s a normal day in the valley. ‘All things bright and beautiful’ echoes from the school. The children go back to their classes for a day’s learning.
Seven black peaks loom beyond the ridge above the village. The detritus from centuries of mining, dumped in a place that is almost out of sight, but never out of mind of the people below. Great mounds of spoil, higher than the valley, dour tributes to man’s plundering of the carbon riches below. It’s been raining very heavily. The old streams swell with the run-off. The ones that, oddly, all but apparently the owners of these satanic peaks know about.
The dust and soil at the base of the nearest of these peaks is waterlogged. Ever increasing in its softness, it becomes more and more a slurry of coal dust and mud. The mass of the tip bears down upon it, a dead weight. Then tip number seven moves, it lurches and crumbles and descends in one great catastrophic flow. The black muck and loose rock, greased at the base, tears down the valley as a terrifying shadow. Over pastures and bracken, faster and faster it descends with undignified haste. Through farms and terraces, the path is relentless, drawn like a magnet towards the school. Born of man’s ignorance, it is the innocent that will pay the price.
The roaring sound is like an aircraft coming into land, though no airfield is anywhere near. The classrooms darken as the unimaginable hell unfolds around them. Then there is nothing. An uneasy stillness envelopes the world. Nature has followed its rules and a dreadful order has been restored, in a place where man has tried to ignore the effects of his own folly.
You hear the little school has been damaged by an accident. Your body goes numb when you hear that a black morass has scythed through the heart of the village. A flow, like lava, has hit at the point where the most hearts will be broken. Nature’s act of terrorism has delivered a crushing blow to the lives of the people.
You panic, as you scale the black spoil, to find that all that you can see of the school is its slate roof, standing proud of a blanket of misery. Imagine the anguish as people rush around like ants, not knowing where to begin. Not knowing where is the key to unlock this tragedy and save those within. Not knowing for all but a few, it is already too late.
The people start digging anywhere, everywhere, for a chance that a child has managed to escape. Some claw the black mass with their bare hands to try and unlock their dreadful tomb. It’s all in vain, those precious few who were pulled out at the start are the miracles. Nobody is found alive after the first two hours.
Your body moves in slow motion as you attend the misery of the chapel, now a morgue of tiny lifeless bodies. You force yourself to look at each child in their final slumber, hoping against all the odds that yours is not amongst the rows of the dead. You hope, but in your heart you fear the real truth.
There is pain, a searing agony within that you cannot bear and yet have to, for there are few, too few who can help. Those who were blessed with relief are strangely distant, as if fearing that to offer succour would be somehow mocking the afflicted.
The anguish is shared by all, as the establishment closes ranks and tries to move on with indecent haste. You try not to think about the future when there is none. When all your hopes and dreams have been crushed with as passionless and ruthless a blow, as the landslide dealt that cold October morning. Deep down, there is a knowledge that just a bit earlier, just a bit later, would have saved the children from their fate. Just a short time either side would have left them in a safer place than the classrooms that became their tomb
When you go to your children tonight, hug them with the love you hold. Cherish the contact and their presence. Do it for yourselves. Then shed a tear and raise a prayer for those who could not, fifty years ago. At Aberfan.
Tydi, a glywaist lithriad traed
Ar ffordd Calfaria gynt;
Tydi, a welaist ddafnau gwaed
Y Gwr ar ddieithr hynt:
O! cadw ni rhag dyfod oes
Heb goron ddrain, na chur, na chroes. Amen.
O Thou who once heard hesitant steps
On Calvary’s hill of shame;
Who saw the blood in trickling drops
From Man on path so strange;
Oh! save us from our future loss;
No crown of thorns, nor pain, nor cross. Amen.
Friday 21st October sees the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster in Merthyr Vale, when a waterlogged mound of coal spoil collapsed. The ensuing flow of slurry engulfed two farmhouses, eighteen terraced houses and the local primary school. Of the 144 killed, 116 were children. We know the story, but why do we return to it again and again?
As the anniversary has approached in recent years, people have posted condolences on social media. It’s struck a chord with many, mostly perhaps those from Wales or other mining communities. This year being such a milestone, the world has gone overboard. The television and radio has documentaries, dramas, arts programmes. Certainly over here you cannot escape it.
There are key dates each year which gives people a poignant reminder of their losses. Every year – birthdays, anniversaries, christmas, the terrible day itself have to be borne, and with it the feeling of loneliness and loss. I hope the small community of Aberfan bears the world’s interest with the spirit it is intended, but the scrutiny must be unbearable and I am sure they will be glad when this anniversary is past.
It seems unfair that those who have suffered are reminded of this dreadful day on a regular basis. Interviews, soundbites, visiting tourists – I’m sure they want to be left alone to carry on their lives, but somehow, the world cannot let go. Why? Why can’t we let go and let be?
A week or so back, I was moved to write a small essay as a tribute to those who have suffered. But then is it my place to do so? And why do I feel so engaged? I have no connections with the area. I am not a miner. I was four at the time and not aware of what was happening. What makes me cry when I hear the people speak or see the images, for it does? I don’t want to pity the victims and pat them on their heads, to return them to the box for another year. I want to pay tribute in a way that shows empathy. A way of saying I can never understand, but my heart goes out to them. It may help to examine why it affects me so much.
Personally, my own reasons are varied. I have never worked down a pit, the mining in my part of Wales was abandoned by 1927. But the artefacts and the scars gave me an interest from an early age. I studied mining geology in Uni and my geological and archaeological interests has given me a fascination of Welsh mining. It affects my writing; my efforts have included ‘Senghenydd’, a short story of the thoughts of a rescue worker, as he looks for survivors of the worst disaster in mining history, when a gas explosion ripped through a mine.
It feels more personal, being from Wales. I remember long ago and for my sins, I went on a bank manager’s course to Birmingham. I was with about six other naive trainees and one from Aberdare, about two hours away from my part of the Principality.
‘Ooh, he’s from Wales also,’ the trainer cooed. ‘Do you know him, Geraint?’
I laconically replied yes, because we all live on the same street.
But then there is some element of that parochialism that exists in my pricipality. I’m in England, there’s a Welsh person. We’ve immediately got something in common. Well, it works for me.
Then there’s a paternal feeling. The majority of those who died are the age of my son. I shudder to think of the blow that something like this would deliver to my life. To lose someone not even old enough to have started to carve out their lives, hopes and dreams, it would crush me. Their future lives, ambitions, marriages children, ambitions were all turned to dust, by something so avoidable. You don’t have to have had children to be moved by this fact. It tugs at everyone’s heart. There have been many tragedies in history, many in Wales. Never has there been such a tragedy anywhere, outside of war, involving children.
I mention Senghenydd, a tragedy that consumed 439 men and boys, decimated a community and left many a household struggling to survive. Outside of the Aber valley, this tragedy is not well known enough and yet the reasons for it are just another testament to ignorance and corporate incompetence. Again, it was totally avoidable, but the powers that be felt it better to ignore the warnings. Senghenydd’s tragedy is no longer within living memory, whereas Aberfan still is. As such, we should be glad for the voices who tell us of their pain and suffering. Of the miracles of rescue, but living with the guilt of being rescued afterwards. We should listen, understand and mourn those who passed and make sure that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again – anywhere.
There is a minute’s silence called for on Friday 9.15am Uk time. The same moment fifty years earlier saw a wall of slurry crush the life out of a community, but never its spirit. Gorwedd mewn hedd . RIP.
We were men, of passion and honour, courage and fear. We did what we were told and were derided for it. Yet still, we did what was asked again and more, so much more. We were boys of the valleys and boys of the town, country boys and townies. We didn’t care, we welcomed all without prejudice. For in the end, we were a family. We looked out for each other; it was so natural, so obvious. Watch their back and they watch yours. Protect your own, your brothers.
Many of us were not from this land. Stafford and Manchester, Oxford, the Emerald Isle, they all provided us with their sons and we embraced them like our own, for they were part of us in the end. They sang our songs, they played, they laughed and they stood proud. They never disgraced us, nor we them. We taught them the hwyl and they embraced it like the men they were.
Welsh, they called us and we bathed in the fire of the red dragon. We sang the hymns of our forefathers and listened to the minister, fresh from chapel. We spoke in our tongue, the hiraeth burning in our hearts. The longing for our homeland was strong, but together we were stronger and we had power.
Policemen, we were and farmers. Lawyers and Dockers. Men of rugby, men of books, poets and Pals. We laughed and cried, ate and smoked together. For that was our lot. Thrown into the ruined land and told to make our people proud, that is what we did. We made sure they would never forget us and they will not. They will sing our praises for a hundred years and more. For they will know that we were men and our mettle could never be quenched.
When the call came and we knew it was our time, we did not flinch or turn away. We sang our hymns, we said our prayers and we waited for the time to show our worth. Where we could show all the doubters what we were: good honest men.
As the smoke lay across the valley and the whistles blew, we rose to a man and climbed out of our haven, to walk towards the trees. Nobody flinched and no-one turned, though the path was hard and our way was blocked. We did what we were asked again and again and again. ‘Lloyd George’s Welsh Army’ they sneered, yet we cared not. We kept walking through the hail of metal and mist. We fought until we could fight no more.
Many lived to sing in joy and return to their loved ones in the land of their birth. Many laid down to sleep, their work done. Sons and husbands, fathers and brothers, we all did our best and saw the job through until the end, until the dragon stood proud over that land.
Four thousand of our brothers gave their all in honour and glory to lie down forevermore in those 8 days of July 1916.
At Mametz Wood.
It’s all there. You have a story planned, perhaps not all of it is in place, but you have the stepping stones to take you most of the way. Perhaps you know where it will end. It’s all flowing quite well, (that’s very well in writer speak.) You may have discovered a few twists and turns on your journey that you hadn’t foreseen. One or two of your characters may have stood up along the way and sent you down the path with renewed strength. They may have shown you more scenic routes or even a path you did not know that was there. It’s a big adventure. You know where you’re going and it all rocks. Then you hit the glass wall.
You are there in it with your characters. Urban or rural, past or present, intimate or remote. Whatever the setting, you know what milepost you have to reach next. You may be able to see it, tantalising in the distance. A horizon beyond which is the next stone, but something stands up and gets in the way. The more you try, the worse it gets and you end up standing still. What can you do?
How do you find the map, to plot the way round? Sometimes you can manage to nudge the plot forward a tiny step, but it feels nothing more than a slide along the side of the glass wall. You feel you’re still treading water. The view can get blurred or perhaps the path looks even further away. Mentally, you feel exhausted, barren or strained. Maybe all three. You push for progress, yet nothing happens.
It’s not a new phenomenon. J K Rowling didn’t invent it when she hit the wall during the writing of the Half-Blood Prince, for example. Nor did she make it fashionable, unless you happen to be a tabloid journalist. I don’t think she’d wish it on anyone, to be honest (writer’s block, that is – not tabloid journalism). It’s a shock to the system, an unbearable tension as you wish to move on, but can’t.
Writing is a mood thing. You’ve got to be in the mood to do it any justice. So many things happen to us in our day to day lives which can upset the balance and influence us. They may be the kind of things that quench the free spirit and suppress creativity. We try to be stronger and push through, but there’s nothing in the tank. We have to recognise that you can’t just switch off the outside. You could be tired, you could be stressed. You could just be distracted by greater priorities in life. Don’t panic, every writer gets that moment. Don’t forget your labour of love is your work of art, you wouldn’t turn the marathon into a sprint, certainly not in its early stages.
Do we feel we are cheating ourselves or flattering our ego by thinking we are cheating our audience in this lack ofproductivity? But maybe, just maybe, if we were to give ourselves a bit of time, leave everything be for a while, perhaps we’d come back fresher. Like having that long sleep after a series of sleepless nights. You feel so much better for it.
The block is there for a reason. Your mind isn’t ready to take the story further. Give it a rest, relax. Let it go.
Recognising the block for what it is is a good start. Then realising you can’t just take a run at it. Take your time, take a break if you need to. Move onto other projects. You can always go back later, it will be still there, waiting for when you are ready.
I’ll stop now. This has taken seven days to write. Too much going on, obviously 🙂
I received this in conversation with Kay Green of Circaidy Gregory Press and I thought it was so good that I had to share it. An insight for us writers about the importance of editing
Proof reading is one of the reasons editors are needed – it’s hard to correct your own work because you already know it so well you read what is supposed to be there, rather than what is.
At a deeper level, the same is true of fiction editing. I constantly hark back to a fantastic lecture I went to by Beverley Birch, writer and editor of novels for children. She had an extended metaphor running through the whole lecture in which the writer was a film director, the editor a producer and – well, editor.
But the difference is in what has already been made in the writer’s head. When you write a novel, by the end of the first draft the story is complete in your head, as a film or, as internal films are most commonly known, a ‘daydream’. You can see it all perfectly, and the words you write and re-write are the imperfect pencil lines on that bit of tracing paper. The problem is that you, the author, cannot switch off the film completely – it’s indelibly in your head – so you cannot see what the words alone look like when the tracing paper (your ms) is moved away from the original (your daydream). Only your editor can do that.
A while back, long before Forest Brothers was more than just an idea, I went to a writing festival in Winchester. A weekend of writing lectures and one to ones. Stunning town, beautiful cathedral and the festival itself was quite fun. Highly recommended actually, I learnt a lot.
One point was not to approach every opportunity as it being the ‘do or die’ moment. Getting 15 minutes with somebody deemed important is great, albeit a bit artificial, like a cold call. It doesn’t kill your writing career when someone says no. I realised people use so many different routines to achieve their final manuscript. So the next time someone tells you ‘this is how to write fiction’, you do have a right to say; ‘Thanks, but this is how I write fiction.’ Editing may be necessary, no is necessary – a second opinion who hasn’t lived the novel for the past few years is always handy to tell you where things could be tightened, added or taken away.
I laugh now at the agent who flicked through the first 17 pages of my manuscript, before jabbing her finger on page 18 and exclaiming ‘Start there!’ At the time i wondered how her speed-reading powers were so great, until she followed it up by explaining that Prologues were not part of the story. Well, that one wasn’t, cobbled on as a vanity project to dramatise a scene from my family’s past. Maybe it will stand alone in its own right as an essay one day. On being linked to the front of a saga about lead miners in Cardiganshire, a farmer’s wife in Barmouth having a fling with a Spanish sailor (true story, mind you!) didn’t move the plot along or introduce the protagonists straight away so that you got to join them ontheir journey. A useful piece of advice, I have only written one prologue since and it was the end scene of a story. Designed of course to make you join the man when he said ‘how the hell did I get here’ and make you read on.
Back in Winchester, the speakers were interesting, mostly trying to emphasise their points with pieces from their own work. This again made a lot of sense – what other piece of work do you know so intimately. Well perhaps you could reach for a piece about a boy wizard, a hobbit or a British agent. (I haven’t invented a new variation of the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke there, btw). Authors are more comfortable with their own work – hey, you might buy some of it too if they’ve done a good job with the seminar!
I remember two things that showed me the other side of writing. The one when you start believing your own press, gaining an addiction to luvvydom. I sat down to breakfast and a jolly elderly lady came over to join me. On being asked whether she was here as a delegate or a speaker (well, I didn’t quite get to the speaker bit), there followed a pained monologue about how she was a prolific children’s author with over 50 novels published. The tone was veiled very thinly with outrage. I still don’t know who she was. Don’t think I ever read one of her books in my 40s (as I was in Winchester), but then again, she had never read one of mine either.
A particular author read passages from one of his novels to emphasise hoistorical research, something I am very keen to subscribe to for obvious reasons. He finished with a long piece about a funeral of a famous Briton. At the end, he slowly put a bookmark into his work. Then with an equal pace, he closed the book and looked up with… hey, I thought the earth had stopped rotating for a second. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Write like that and you’ll earn yourself a few bob.’
I admit I learnt a lot from that talk. mainly ‘Don’t piss off your audience by acting like an arrogant toss-pot.’ Also, ‘always check for a sick bucket in case the speaker has disappeared up his own backside’. I hated the way this prose was fed to me that here was a masterpiece, I must bow to its splendour. Hang on, bro. That’s my call. If I like your work, I’ll decide that. if I think it’s lacking, I’ll decide that also, thanks very much.
And not that the Winchester festival needed defence, because it was a really good learning curve with lots of positive speakers and friendly, good advice given.
At the moment, as you might have guessed, I am involved in the editing process of a manuscript. I enjoyed this part previously, because there is still a child-like thrill as to where we will end up. The opinions of an experienced editor are very insightful. I am not averse to suggestions, these people are taking up their precious time to enhance my work. Sometimes things get rewritten a bit. Sometimes bits that haven’t been highlighted stand out as needing development from the edit. Some scenes may be lost or watered down. Others may arrive from that part of the corner of my mind. Suddenly, the labour of love you have slaved over for many a year is being looked at from a different angle and its a refreshing and exciting experience that you miss when it’s all completed. I hope I never get to the Bob phase and forget that.
NB For those of you expecting to stumble on some GBS monologue, I shall leave you with this thought.
My last post detailed the prequel planned for Forest Brothers. I can also report that there is also a planned sequel, currently untitled. The story will feature Juhan being recruited to catch Godfrey, now a fugitive in the north of Scotland. Teamed up with a British agent, he follows the trail as the web unravels into something much bigger than was imagined. he is aided by his parents, also Jan and the crew of his Shetland Bus.
Currently though, I have begun to prepare another novel for publication. ‘The Promise’ is a story of a young man forced to flee from his rural mining village near Aberystwyth. Set in the late Victorian period, it relates his struggle to find his place in the blossoming railway trade and his hopes to rediscover his family. The Promise won a prize at the 2012 Aber Valley Arts festival in the ‘Welsh novel’ category.
More information will follow…!
Once Forest Brothers was completed, I was asked what I would do next. The story was written as a one off, but there were a few people out there wanting to know more. I had moved on to my next project, a different setting, a different time period. I had started the writing process and my creative mind was elsewhere. But after a while, the desire began to gather within me to create more of the story, to find out for myself more of the Estonian tale.
This time I chose to create a back story. I knew that when i chose the time period of 1944 for Forest Brothers, I had picked a time of turmoil in Estonia. I also knew that they had suffered greatly for the previous 4 years as two armies coveted the land. Historically, Estonia suffered an earlier torment in 1940, after Von Ribbentrop and Molotov had carved up the East between their nations. First Stalin annexed the country, before Hitler felt strong enough to beat them back. This was a moment in Estonian history which my Estonian characters would have lived through. I wanted to explore what happened to them and how they became the people they were in Forest Brothers. I also wanted to give some of the lesser characters a chance to come to life. Finnish Boys was born.
The story begins in 1940 on the eve of the Red Terror. In that one night, 10,000 people were rounded up from all across Estonia and shipped by trains to Siberian camps. Military, police, teachers, but also anyone potentially capable of organising any shred of resistance. Names were drawn up and the Soviet plan to break down society went forward. On this evening, Mart is warned he is on the list. The bearer of the news gives him a chance to escape, by taking her and her English boyfriend to the North coast and an escape to Finland. He agrees, but only if he can warn his estranged wife, Maarja, first. The lives of Mart, Maarja, Juhan are brought to life once more, as their flight is swept up into the events when two foreign armies fight over a sovereign nation and loyalty and trust are used and abused. Peetr, Raio and Sven – the cameo figures in Forest Brothers are also brought to life and you get a glimpse of their journey, especially the melancholic Peetr. You also get to meet Liisbet a young red, turned rebel to save her English Lover, known as Monty.
I am expecting Finnish Boys to be ready at the end of this year and will of course, publish updates.
The Finnish Boys were a unit of Estonians who had escaped Soviet occupation to fight for the Finnish Army. Although allied with Germany in the fight against Stalin, the unit ended up repelling an attempt at liquidation to allow 2,000 refugees to escape from the forests of Kautla. In a conflict where both armies were guilty of atrocities, this action stands out as one of humanitarian action.
The problem now I have is have i chosen the right title? The repetition of using a title of two words beginning F and B, makes it harder for the prequel, which I have just finished its first draft!
There will be further news about another writing project soon. I have another project set in Edwardian Mid Wales. Stay tuned!
This week’s blog is slightly dfferent. I have an exclusive interview with me old mucker, Rod duncan. I’ve known Rod for a year or 45 and have always been admiring of his work. Rod established himself with his “Riot Trilogy”, each of which examine the same riot, on one day in Leicester, from the experience of a different character.
Rod has now moved into the mystical world of Steampunk. His first novel ‘The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter’ was nominated for the prestigious (2014) Philip K Dick award. ‘The Custodian of Marvels’, is the third book in the ‘Gas-lit empire’ series,’ and will be released in February.
Writing is a very personal process and there is no set path for achieving your creation. I asked Rod how he prepared and wrote his novels and this is our conversation below:
Where do your ideas come from?
I’m a curious person. Some people might call me nosy. But that’s probably not any different from most novelists. When I see things that interest me, I investigate. And then – after a period of time – an idea will pop into my head. I might not at first be able to tell where it came from. It’s like a dream, in that way. I have to really think about it before I realise what the spark was. It might have been something I saw a month ago. A year ago. Sometimes the inspiration goes right back to my childhood.
If I had to give one moment of inspiration for the novels of the Gas-Lit Empire, it would be a small street in Leicester where the road surface had been broken up by the frost. The Tarmac had come away, giving a glimpse of the cobbled road surface below. That started me thinking about the Victorian world and the contemporary world both being present at the same time. And that gave rise to the idea behind the alternate history that underpins the novels.
How do you plan the novel?
I come up with an idea for the main beats of the story – a starting point, a couple of the main transitions and an ending point. On that basis, I start to write. My hope is that I discover a few new things about the story each time I sit down to write. But I don’t have a detailed idea of what is going to happen. Not until I’m almost at the end.
How do you carry out your research?
Since this is a fantastical alternate history, I am at liberty to make stuff up. Having said that, all this is based on things that happened and historical processes, so I do need to read as well. But the story will come from knowledge I’ve acquired over the years. I tend to do research to fill in gaps or to get a more sensory experience of the thing that I’m describing.
A lot of that is on the Internet these days. But there’s nothing to beat direct experience. The characters in my latest novel, The Custodian of Marvels, were picking locks. So I had to go at it myself.
Do you visit places or read about them?
It’s surprisingly how much you can do without visiting a place. Google Street View is a wonderful tool. So is Google’s image search. But they won’t give you the sounds and smells and textures. So visiting the place is always the best thing to do if you can.
Do you write in a linear way (ie start to finish) or do you write some pieces stand alone?
I like to write in a linear way. But later on in a series of books, plotting can become quite complicated. You end up with a lot of different story threads to work with. And The Custodian of Marvels is built around a heist story. That is a technical challenge in itself. So with this novel I did end up writing some things out of sequence.
Do you think your characters have traits based on real people?
I’m not aware of giving my characters that traits of people I know. But the subconscious mind is a strange thing, so who knows? There might be a little bit of you in there somewhere. And certainly a little bit of me.
Have you ever taken an event from your life and adapted it?
Yes. But the relationship with the real event is always very tenuous. Reality provides the spark. The imagination burns where it will.
What is your editing process?
I edit as I go along. I wouldn’t advise other people to do this. If I could break the habit, I would. It makes my writing very slow. And I on occasion written a chapter and spent time polishing it, only later to discover that it didn’t have a place in the novel.
When I’m editing, I read everything aloud to myself many times, listening for how it sounds. I would certainly recommend that approach.
How do you judge success?
That’s a very good question. An insightful question. The first criteria of success is my own judgement. Do I think that I’ve written a better book than my last one? The second is the reaction of other writers, who I share my work with at an early stage. If they like it, I feel successful. And then, of course, there is the judgement of the wider world. Publication, reviews and maybe shortlisting for an award or two.
But it’s wise not to get too focused on all that glitter. A couple of weeks ago a reader who I’d never met emailed to thank me for writing one of my novels, saying it had been significant to her in a particular way. For me, that is the highest standard of success – to touch someone’s life in a positive way.
What advice would you give to new novelists?
If you have the urge to write, don’t hold back. Writing a novel is an extraordinary process. It will change you. Through it, you will learn to see the world with greater intensity. You’ll learn about yourself and about other people. Perhaps you’ll make it big and get into the bestseller lists. But if that becomes your focus, it will always feel like a struggle. Even when you are bestseller. So, focus instead on being a little bit better at it each day. And enjoy the ride.
Will we see more books about the Gas-lit empire?
With the Custodian of Marvels, the first series is complete. But yes, there will be more to come in the Gas Lit Empire. And you will see more of Elizabeth, the protagonist.