...and first day in the new job

So here we go. September 1st is the first day in the new job; being a full-time freelance writer. I've never been self-employed before, so as you might imagine, there's something of a learning curve to be scaled. 

Some of the past few days has been spent setting up a basic-but-workable system of keeping track of accounts (in other words, I've got an A4 file), ordering some business cards, hooking myself up with the tax and National Insurance folk; all of that.  

I've tidied up my online presence, backing up and archiving a couple of old blogs, and redirecting URLs that I've got for those back here. I'll keep a weather eye on traffic from those addresses, and if it's useful to do so, I'll renew them. If not, I'll let them go. Also, I've joined Facebook - something I dabbled with back in the late 00s but found it not for me - partly to keep in contact with former colleagues, and partly to help support me doing this. 

So, yeah, I'm making this up as I go along.    

However, as making things up is now the day job, let's hope that this just becomes a new normal.  One of the key steps along that particular path is to establish a new writing routine; one that doesn't have to work around the restrictions of office hours plus commute plus marking and so on at home. That'll be the focus of Friday's post. 

"Looks like I'm walking." Last day in the old job...

Today's my last day at what's now my old job. That's coming up on fifteen years with the same employer. A decade and a half of teaching. So it's a big shift that's being made. Time to do some writing, full-time.

And along with a change of that nature, naturally there's some mixed emotions. So here's how I'm feeling today, explored via a few movies. Why movies? Let Steve Martin - in Grand Canyon - explain:

Some days have been a bit like this:

And sometimes I've felt like Frank Oz, here supervising the test in Spies Like Us:

And occasionally like Pacino's Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross:

And ever so occasionally like Peter Finch in Network:

Though there's been some of this too:

A little bit of me's like Al Pacino on getting released from jail in Carlito's Way. Like Carlito Brigante, I did some time but never got convicted on no dope:

And a bit of me's going to be like Joliet Jake Blues getting out of the slammer to find that things have changed on the outside:

Though prison/escape comparisons are a bit clunky (and not really accurate to my situation, in all fairness), they're at least vivid and visual. Ain't that right, Andy Dufresne?

So it's not like I've actually crawled through a prison-pipe of poo to get out, but it will feel a bit odd to be out on the outside.

Hopefully there'll folk out there like Peter Falk in Wings of Desire, helping newbies acclimatise:

Mostly, though, today I get to be Robert de Niro. Specifically, the de Niro of Midnight Run.

After a long time trying to do the right thing (and, like most of us not always getting it quite right), de Niro's character Jack Walsh (over two video clips) finally gets an out.

A little travelling money, the sense of a new beginning, but first, the walk home.



Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 3

Following on from the last two posts (here and here), this is the final (and mercifully, the briefest) of these behind the scenes looks that I've taken from the PhD thesis that I wrote to accompany Prospect

Re-reading it, I reckon that the best thing to do is simply to let those of you who are interested have access to the whole document. Inevitably it won't all make sense without having had the experience of reading the novel and as it discusses the plot and characters in some detail, it's a bit on the spoilery side. 

However, for what it's worth, here's a link to a .pdf of the thesis, which is called "Mapping the author in The Prospect of This City". Hope it's of some interest/use!

Prospect is out now and is available here

A sample from The Prospect of This City: 23rd August 1666

As it's set 349 years ago to the day, here's the prologue to The Prospect of This City. Hope you like it!

Prologue: Thursday 23rd August 1666

Midnight made a mirror of the window-glass. Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt’s reflected face was as immobile as a portrait. He must have heard Rufus Challis be admitted into his offices, but had made no reaction. Instead he stared, his back to Challis, unblinking into the outside dark.

Challis stood in the centre of the room, left hand over right. De Witt’s desk was a scrabble of documents, papers tumbling over each other. Official correspondence, hastily-printed street pamphlets and hand-bills. Challis did not need to read them to know their contents. There could be only one reason why he had been invited, so secretly, to attend on the Dutch chief minister.

A smaller, secondary desk to one side. Somewhere a secretary might have sat and taken notes. Mathematical charts, writing equipment, a courier pouch.   

After perhaps five minutes, de Witt spoke. His English was good. ‘Sometimes I talk to myself aloud when I am alone,’ he said. ‘To organise my thoughts, nothing more.’

This was it.

‘The news is all across the Republic of the Seven Netherlands. All Dutchmen have learned of the recent atrocities the English have wrought. We might be at war with their King Charles, but our battles are at sea. Navy against navy, fighting like good Christians and honourable gentlemen despite our differences.

‘But no.’ De Witt stopped.

The old pain flared in Challis’s right hand. A harbinger, a premonition. He breathed through his mouth to ease the ache.  

De Witt rubbed his eyes. A deep draught from a glass of almost purple wine. ‘A fire-ship attack on our port of Schelling. Frigates burned in their berths, honest merchant-men losing their livelihoods. Worse, though, the sacking of the township. Women cut down in their homes. Innocents slaughtered. This,’ he drank again, draining the glass, ‘must not go unanswered.’

‘So I stand in solitude.’ De Witt’s voice quietened. ‘And I pray.’

Challis bowed his head and closed his eyes.

‘I pray that I am forgiven these violent imaginings.

‘I pray that we Dutch are given the year to rebuild our lost vessels and recruit fresh men. That we will right the wrongs done this week by Charles of England. That renewed, we will take this fight back to England in the Spring.’

Challis’s right hand pulsed. It felt full to bursting. This was no infected war-wound, though, but a holy thing. An engorgement with the spirit of the Lord.

‘But,’ de Witt continued, ‘this destruction, this murder cannot remain unaddressed. I pray that the sparks of the same fire that burned Schelling are blown across the water to England. That God brings down His fire upon the English and that we Dutch are avenged. That we are spared the necessity of retaliation in the new martial season.’

Challis opened his eyes. He went to the pouch on the secretary’s desk and checked inside. Papers, money. More than he needed for the enterprise. He took the pouch, cupping it in his throbbing, precious hand.   

‘I pray that this is done soon, so that God’s will is seen,’ de Witt said. ‘Amen.’

Leaving, Challis turned at the door.

De Witt remained at the window, his back still to the room. Throughout, he had made no acknowledgement that Challis had ever been there.

Thanks for reading. Prospect is out now, and is available in paperback and Kindle ebook.  

Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 2

Continuing on from the previous post, here's the second excerpt from the PhD thesis that I wrote alongside Prospect's original version.

This section discusses genre definitions, historical fiction, thrillers, inspirations and contexts of the novel's writing, and some of the practical issues involved in writing a fiction set within a defined and well-known historical context.

On the face of it, Prospect may be categorised generically as an historical novel, in that the book is set in a specific real-world past, that of the years following the 1660 restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, and to a significant date and event within that, the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Historical fiction, as both de Groot and Green (2011: 59) note, is undergoing something of a commercial and critical renaissance. Hilary Mantel’s back-to-back successes in Man Booker Prize terms with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies being perhaps the most conspicuous example of the turn in making ‘historical fiction respectable again’ (Jeffries 2012) .

That said, the historical in itself does not necessarily lend itself to accuracy in terms of genre identification; the temporal location of the (or indeed, any) novel’s events doesn’t necessarily provoke a kind of novel in itself. As someone who’s unpublished in the novel form, there are no clues which might be deduced from my name in the way that a potential reader might assume certain (albeit differentiated) expectations from a recognised thriller writer such as Lee Child or John Le Carre or indeed historical novelists such as Bernard Cornwell or Lindsey Davis.    

The concept of genre is usually bound up with that of with questions of narrative, though Mullan offers useful additional definitions: story is what happens in the novel, narrative is the way the story is told, plot being the ‘causal chain that connects events and characters (2008: 169 - 70). Bulman defines genre as meaning ‘kind, sort, type or category’ (2007: 104). Genres often indicate plot archetypes - romance, thriller, science-fiction, and horror - though may not always communicate much by way of specifics.

The term ‘historical novel’ doesn’t necessarily do this in quite the same way, though it may suggest an approach that the author might take in telling their story. Johnson (2005: 1) offers an opening definition of historical fiction as that which is ‘set before the middle of the last century and [where] the author is working from research rather than personal experience’. De Groot focuses on the ways which the genre ‘fundamentally challenges subjectivities, offering multiple identities and historical story lines’ (2010: 139). This latter definition was where I was headed, though in the early parts of the project I was burdening myself with the assumption that there was an imperative to deliver history and fiction rather than fiction that was in some way historical.   

To acclimatise myself to the genre I set myself the task of reading as much historical fiction as I could. I put parameters around the reading: I’d restrict myself where possible to English-set historical fiction, and to work by practising authors and to work set pre-1800. This was to limit the reading to something manageable and also to give it some coherence, and partly to give myself an overview of the condition of historical fiction as it is now. By reading in depth, I could better understand the genre: what worked and what didn’t work for me within it. I looked for London-set novels where possible. So I read over one hundred and fifty historical novels between 2008 and 2012. In doing this, I found out a huge amount about what was and wasn’t interesting to me within the genre. These ideas fed into the structuring, writing and rewriting of Prospect.

The Prospect of This City began as another book altogether.  In 2006 I’d started writing a novel as a response to the July 7th 2005 bombings.  I’d been in central London that day (I live in Lincolnshire and had taken the week off to help my brother set up his final show for his BA in Fine Art). The experience of being at once close to and distant from that event was in many ways thrilling.  The novel I’d started (though it was never completed) concerned a young man with Down’s syndrome who worked in the backroom of a flagship London chain bookstore as a cleaner.  A set of terrorist attacks similar to the 7/7 ones occur, and the young man tries to make sense of them.  He begins a journey around London, visiting friends, churches, a mosque, asking questions and trying to work out why someone would seek to kill themselves and others in service of a faith-related cause. Eventually he decides that the only way to understand the act is to replicate it.

I put the project on hold at about the 30,000 word mark.  In part this was because I’d prepared inadequately for the project.  I’d written from a random start point with little in the way of organised planning, character thought or forward plotting. I ran out of steam. Also, I’d been concerned that the book was too similar to Mark Haddon’s The Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which had been a recent success in critical and commercial terms (Freeman: 2006), and that I’d grafted Haddon’s naive protagonist onto the terrorism-related premise without sufficient thought.  Any resulting book would seem, I determined, an emulation of Haddon’s.

The idea behind Prospect came along at the same time.  My intent was to write the two novels back-to-back, exploring in different but related ways aspects of the city, of terrorism, of faith extremism and its dark possibilities; one from a contemporary standpoint, one with an historical bias.  An element of this was derived from JG Farrell’s The Siege of KrishnapurThe Singapore Grip and Troubles, novels which individually and collectively critique aspects of the British Empire.  Again, the idea was one of emulation: to examine terrorism in a manner similar to how Farrell had his.  I had nebulous ideas for a third book, a contemporary thriller involving a forgotten IRA arms cache, the son of a soldier killed on active duty in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, and video evidence of a hushed-up atrocity committed by M16 officers acting undercover inside a terrorist cell.

The Prospect of This City was to be the second-written of the three books.  I didn’t feel confident in starting an historical piece first, so I went with one of the others, thinking  that a present-day setting and direct references to contemporary issues would make for more straightforward writing.

I was wrong. I wasn’t ready to write a full novel. I licked my wounds and in time I turned to Prospect. I felt sure that there was enough in the log-line: ‘a race-against time conspiracy thriller set during the Great Fire of London’ to be able to construct something, though in 2006 I had little in the way of potential character ideas, of detailed plotting or specific knowledge of the period. 

Though I had not investigated in depth, it felt that the Restoration was relatively underused as a setting for novels and within that, there was space for the Fire to be explored.  My hope was that approaches would be provoked by doing the reading. 

As it was, two novels had already presented themselves as models. These were Thomas Harris’s second Hannibal Lecter novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal.  In particular I was taken with the mentor-student relationship between Lecter and FBI trainee Clarice Starling, and with the implacable nature of Forsyth’s unnamed assassin. From these I took guidance on the fascination that procedure can bring. Harris details FBI protocols on search and entry, on forensics and pathology, on painstaking leg-work.  Forsyth generates suspense by juxtaposing twin processes. The novel shifts from observing the assassin’s preparations to intercutting between his progress towards Paris, where he intends to strike, and police commissioner Lebel’s methodical approach to securing the positive identification of the hit man. Though I wasn’t interested in writing either a cat-and-mouse thriller nor one which focused on a dogged investigator, I was interested in the planning, assembly and execution of an event, and in the particularities involved.

My own short stories evidenced repeated use of compressed timeframes or real time narration. The ‘race against time’ aspect of my logline resonated here; I wanted to construct a story that took place in as short a period as I could justify. The finished novel, an epilogue aside, is related over two and a half days, with the last 40,000 words before the coda - from the start of the Fire to the novel’s climax - covering perhaps five hours. 

 Some of this came from my interest in compact timeframes, some was necessitated by the records and retellings of the Fire itself.  In essence, my narrative could not tell the whole story of the Fire, as there was no single climactic event to work a whole-Fire narrative towards. 

The next section's a bit spoilery, so I'll leave it there for the time being, and I'll post up some more material from the reflective thesis in a few days' time, once I've cut out sections that are focused on plot specifics and suchlike. 

The Prospect of This City is available in paperback and Kindle ebook here

Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 1


My novel The Prospect of This City was originally written as part of a PhD in Creative Writing I studied between 2009 and 2013. The now-published version isn't identical to that submitted for the course (and there's a post for another time right there in the alterations made and the rationales for them), but it's pretty close. 

Alongside the creative work that I submitted, there was a dissertation about an aspect of the experience of the novel's writing. Mine was called "Mapping the author in The Prospect of This City". Hmm. I'm not sure that I'd go with that title now, but there you are.   

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting up (fairly lengthy) excerpts from that accompanying non-fiction work. Some of it will be rewritten/clarified from the submitted version, but it'll be substantively the same. 

If nothing else, it records how the book was written, the decisions and choices made along the way, and the reasons underpinning them, as well as an account of the different kinds of research done. some interest here if you're into writing generally, historical fiction more specifically, or the kind of work that might go into writing a book. 

I'll include the (somewhat weighty) bibliography as the last blog post in this sequence. 

At the point where we get potentially spoiler-y for those of you who haven't read Prospect yet (and why not, if you haven't?), I'll flag it up in advance. Don't worry this time around though, as there's nothing that'll let anything too contentious plot/character-wise out of the bag in this post. 

Here we go with the first excerpt. This is approximately the first half of chapter one of the dissertation.

The Prospect of This City (hereafter referred to as Prospect) begins in the days immediately prior to and continues into the first few hours of the start of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Having the Fire be a setting for a novel-length thriller narrative was not an idea that I had come across. This was both surprising and pleasing to me as the Fire seemed like an obvious event to use to structure this kind of story. This apparent lack was enough in itself to assure me that there were stories here, stories that had not been told before. This feeling was backed up by Sarah Johnson’s exhaustive 2005 librarians’ catalogue Historical Fiction: A Guide To The Genre.

That’s not to say that the Fire hasn’t been a feature of much fiction, occasionally conjoined in story with its immediate predecessor in terms of a nationally-significant event, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 - 5. Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance Old St Paul’s is a melodramatic yarn of obsession, thwarted love, prophecy, destruction and redemption across the two disasters. GA Henty’s 1895 When London Burned covers similar terrain.

This linking of Plague and Fire is also an organising feature of Mary Hooper’s At The Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes (grounding their narratives in Plague and Fire respectively), and continues to the present, as indicated by CC Humphreys’ recently announced two - book deal for novels entitled simply Plague and Fire (Williams 2012).

The approach wasn’t of interest to me, because I had seen it done before and because I was unconvinced of the usefulness in linking the two very different disasters together, except in the minds of those who sought conspiracy theories and thus could make their own connections from events which were otherwise coincidental to each other.

Nevertheless, I maintain an interest in the potential in fiction of conspiracy and it was my intent to articulate this in Prospect. Chapter Two looks at this in more detail.

The Fire, though it appears as backdrop in novels as diverse as in Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Tom Holland’s vampire saga Deliver Us From Evil, has often been confined in writing as a subject for younger readers. The Fire is often taught at primary school, where it’s used to exemplify breadth of study, wherepast events from the history of Britain and the wider world (for example, events such as the Gunpowder Plot, the Olympic Games, other events that are commemorated)’ in Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum (Department for Education 2012).

There are many supporting texts written for Key Stage learners such as Lynne Benton and Peter Cottrill’s The King and the Great Fire and Margaret Nash and Jane Cope’s Toby and the Great Fire of London. Children’s novels set in and around the time of the Fire such as Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy may be also considered here.

I felt secure, however, at the project’s outset that there was a space for a Fire-set novel and that this wasn’t over-worked ground, particularly as I had no interest in conflating Plague and Fire. That’s a position that hasn’t since altered.

The idea that there was an element of awareness of the event residual from childhood history lessons, general knowledge and the like was an appeal, as was the open-endedness of the Fire. As the Fire was not ended by human agency, but rather by the prevailing winds changing and by the exhausting of the fuel supply of London’s goods and property (Bell: 226), there was the challenge and opportunity to invent a climax that was not tied to a fixed historical conclusion.

The Fire has been used in more allegorical ways. Peter Ackroyd’s first novel and Jacques Roubard’s non-fiction memoir, both titled The Great Fire of London make reference to the symbolic power of the destructive event, though neither are concerned with the history. The use of the Fire for its symbolic potential was something that I was interested in exploring from the beginning of the project.

The use of an event of national or wider significance to echo / refract a protagonist’s dilemma is a standard fictional ploy. One significant recent strand of this concerns 9/11 and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, referenced in novels as diverse as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Another is the writing commenting on, analysing and - crucially for me, replaying - the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy. Such fictional representations, as Knight has it, raise “fundamental questions about the connection between conspiracy plot and narrative plot; about the nature of character, agency and causality; about the relationship between fictional narrative and historical truth” (2007: 105). These are all areas in which Prospect, as it developed, has fostered interest.    

I wanted Prospect to use a historical event to make some kind of commentary or at least allusion to recent happenings. In Prospect, the faith-driven terrorist Challis plots to engineer the destruction of a major city landmark in ways paralleling those of Mohammad Atta and his cohort. Prospect, I thought, could consider the contemporary world. But it would not site its drama in the aftermath of 9/11, as in the novels mentioned above. Instead, Prospect would prefigure the present day in the past.

I was interested in the idea that history repeats itself. Indeed the Fire was rumoured at the time to have been a revisiting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James I in which the destruction of Parliament by dissident Catholics was barely averted (Tinniswood: 161), and so we should perhaps not see occurrences like 9/11 as necessarily unique, but merely the most recent and vivid iteration of a pattern of events played out before and will doubtless be re-enacted again.

The question of fidelity to the historical record in genre fiction is an ongoing topic of discussion in academic, readership and professional writing circles. Though the parameters of that discussion are outside the scope of this reflective thesis, it should be acknowledged that a range of opinions exist and are of concern to authors, to readers and to commentators also. To some extent, this reflection is my take on that debate, by way of extended example. This is what I did, how, when and why.

Outside of the perhaps necessarily subjective nature of history as a discipline and the obvious point that historical fiction, by its nature, will make play with aspects of the past, one of the purposes of the genre is to find points where the two (history and fiction) may be combined. The medievalist Ian Mortimer’s useful concept of ‘free history’ might be employed here: ‘the totality of all possible human engagements with the evidence relating to a past event or state of being’ (Mortimer 2008: 1).  For Mortimer, free history ‘lies somewhere between “what happened in the past” and “what historians do”, being less than the former and more than the latter. It encompasses the full extent of activities which could be considered “historical”’ (2008: 8). This includes historical fiction, where, as de Groot puts it: ‘novelists concentrate on the gaps between known factual history and that which is lived’ (2010: 3).   

For a novel to go too far in the direction of the factual/historical, the effect might well be akin to an animated textbook. Go too far in the other direction though, and the end result might well be pastiche, romance, or maybe fantasy. That may not necessarily make for bad fiction, but unless the genre boundaries are understood by author, the publishing profession (and its retail ancillaries) and readers alike, the possibility of a text being rejected because it does not align itself in a genre-appropriate fashion is raised.

Thus, authors who are associated with historical fiction are keenly aware of the need to be identifiably, if not authoritatively, persuasive in their genre credentials. At one end of this spectrum, the author might be a recognised historian and/or have a parallel career in academia. Contemporary British examples include Roman scholar Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome series, 2009 onwards) and the above-mentioned Mortimer, who publishes Elizabethan-set thriller fiction under his middle names James Forrester (2009 onwards).

Notwithstanding those badges of authenticity - or at least of verifiable expertise in the historical - authors need to ensure that their texts are seen to be based on historically accurate source material and that licences and adaptations taken and made to the record are documented to have been taken into consideration.

This may be evidenced in several ways. Some, like the author biography, links to personal and publishing company websites, social media contacts, and fly page lists of other publications, are perhaps standard across many genres.

The author’s note, usually (though not exclusively) appended as a suffix to the book, is an inclusion so common to become almost a genre expectation within the historical. Some are brief, light-hearted, offer a couple of pointers for additional reading and give thanks and acknowledgements. Others run to several pages and give a more in-depth background to the historical contexts of the fiction being presented, often with acknowledgement of omissions, elisions and/or changes to the sources used in the piece’s development. This may also feature an extensive bibliography. Some authors use a non-fiction preface. The most common textual inclusion is a map. Some novels include dramatis personae. At one extreme, the 2012 paperback edition of Michael Jecks’ King’s Gold contains, in order and before the first chapter: a glossary of technical terms, a cast of characters, an author’s note, a map of London and a second map of the River Avon.

The purpose of these paratextual additions is to attempt to create a sense of verisimilitude for the reader: the fiction is derived from authentic and verifiable occurrences.  In addition, there’s an opportunity to showcase the author’s knowledge and historical bona fides as well as their elisions and inventions. There’s also an opportunity to refer to ‘awareness of the strange project in which they are involved’ (de Groot 2010: 7-10) in presenting an amalgam of fact and fiction as a historically-relatable invented past. Within the novel itself, the historical fiction author may have to navigate between creating plausible dramatics, explaining specific terminology and contexts for the unfolding drama.

To some extent, if the contextual burden is being carried by extra-textual materials (and in series, by predecessor and successor novels) then the authorial responsibility to explain within the fiction might be eased. The extent that this is generically tolerable, notwithstanding the possibility that a reader may / may not skip the preface pages and dive straight into the first chapter,  and / or ignore any appendices, may vary from reader to reader.

This tendency is particularly evident in paperback editions, where along with the aforementioned inclusions, the edition may also include author interviews, reading group questions and also the first few pages or chapters of the next volume in the sequence, the newer book often appearing in hardback at an approximate time to the paperback of its predecessor (Wilde 2012, Parris 2012 as examples).

This may have the effect of stimulating sales of the series, of reminding the reader that there’s more to come and perhaps ‘upgrading’ the reader from paperback to hardback purchases, and thus provoking a spike in revenue, both in terms of the price uplift between hard- and paperback edition and in terms of recency, foreshortening the buying of the next volume from the next paperback release (perhaps a year away) to the immediately-available hardback. This would map across to ebook sales; UK ebook pricing tends to shadow the most current paper edition.

Prospect does not feature these inclusions, and indeed was written to be self-supporting without them, but it’s recognised that they’re generically appropriate and may even be seen as necessary in a potential published version’s ‘package’. There are some indications, if only in the reading I did while working on this project, that this pattern isn’t followed through to those novels which may be historical in terms of setting but are positioned as literary works rather than genre ones. Representative examples include Clare Clark’s The Great Stink (2005) and Maria McCann’s The Wilding (2010) where additional material is limited to brief acknowledgements after the novel.

However, whatever the usefulness in additional material being presented with the novel text may be (added value to the purchased product, familiarisation, verisimilitude, the provoking of authenticity and accuracy in the fiction, showcasing of research, offering follow-on reading as possible examples), Prospect needs to be able to stand on its own. The idea of the novel being self-contained in these terms was important from the outset.

Notwithstanding this, the title The Prospect of This City is derived from a map. The phrase appears in an inset picture and accompanying description of London of ‘The Prospect of This City as it appeared from the opposite Southwark side in the fire time’ within Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1667 diagram of the extent of the damage to the city (National Archives 2012).  I’d bought a print of the map as one of my first acts of the project. Those words stuck, and so became the title and, over time, provided me with the book’s climax.  

The more I thought about it, the more promise the idea of the map held in articulating positions that I’d begun to take. Maps were everywhere in the books, not least in my personal favourite novel, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1984), which opens with a diagram of the abbey in which the drama is located and is concerned with the need for a map with which to navigate the labyrinthine forbidden library at the novel’s centre, the library itself organised as though it were a map of the world (Rice 2003: 249-354). I was also taken with the conceit of the historical novel as a kind of map itself, a map of a fictionalised version of a real past. A research notebook entry of mine from 2010 reads:

Novels are symbolic, not iconic. But they don’t help themselves because they encourage being seen as iconic through (visual) signs such as covers, maps, etc. And by non-fiction supplements intended to be decoded as iconic rather than symbolic. 


In discussing Eco’s novel, but expanding his point more generally, Rice (2003: 350) comments:


the artist encodes meaning, maps cognitively a conceptual space, a world that the audience decodes by a reciprocal mental mapping process. That, of course, does not mean that these maps are interchangeable or simply superimposed upon one another; they are supplemental.


Perhaps the definitive statement on this comes from Jorge Luis Borges (though the concept may be traced back to Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded). The Borges short fiction On Exactitude in Science posits a map of identical size and scale to the real empire that it’s based on (Eco 1998b: 84). This map/territory conundrum - that the map is not the territory, and not only should the two not be confused for each other but that to accept the map (or the copy) over the territory (or the real), itself exhaustively dissected by Umberto Eco (1998b: 85-94) stayed with me throughout the research, writing and reflective periods of the project.    

The issue of the relationship between the historical and the novelistic, long an area of contention within the field of historical fiction, felt analogous here. The novel is not the history in ways similar to those indicating that the map is not to be confused with the territory. There may be relationships and referents between the two, but one (the novel, or the map, to follow the analogy) is not the other (the historical background of the novel, or the territory).

I saw that there were freedoms and opportunities here. Understanding that my obligations to the Fire and its personages were not ones of literal, mimetic reproduction or ones of exactitude was a liberating one, and ones which I’d not fully taken into consideration in the novel’s planning and early iterations. I’d been overly preoccupied with the former rather than the latter word in the phrase ‘historical novel’. This reflection is the closest I’m going to get to producing such a map, because, as I came to understand, that burden of obligation doesn’t need to be borne by the novel.  

That's the end of this excerpt. More in a few days (the posts will be tagged "Behind the scenes"). And here comes the hard sell: Prospect is available here

The second excerpt's here


Last blog post online now at Benches of Louth

A final summary post has gone up at Benches of Louth. You can find that here. If you're new to Benches then a) where've you been? and b) start here

I'm still mulling over what to do next with Benches. Once I've got a direction sorted out for it, I'll let you know. If you'd like to see an expanded version of the project in book form, then please say so, either here or over on the Benches blog. Same goes if you think it's a daft idea.

One idea is to go for a Kickstarter-style crowdfunded limited edition press run. We'll see! At least, putting together something along those lines would road-test the viability of such an idea. I'll let you know, sooner rather than later, I reckon... 

Benches of Louth blog update

There's a new post over at Benches of Louth. This is the penultimate bench-based blog entry. The last one goes up on Friday 7trh August, and next week I'll add a post that indexes what's gone before. So the project's nearly done; in its current form at least...

More of that to come in time. Between now and then though, here's Benches of Louth 160 - 176

Prospect: out in paperback and Kindle ebook!

So it looks as though The Prospect of This City is available in paperback as well as in Kindle versions! Blimey. 

The covers are a little different at present - the ebook cover with the woodcut is the frontispiece of the paperback version - so you won't lose out by not seeing it if you go old-school and buy the physical version! 

Anyway, I hope you like it. If you read the novel, please leave some feedback on the Amazon review page. It's a really useful way of getting the book out there, and for you to sound off about it as appropriate! 

Here's links to the UK and US sites (though it's also up on other overseas Amazon websites too):

UK paperback / UK Kindle ebook / US paperback / US Kindle ebook


Rear cover text and look for The Prospect of This City

Here's a preview of the back cover text (it's a short piece taken from the beginning of the novel) for the paperback version of Prospect. 

Not looking too bad, is it?

Once the paperback's available, I'll let you fine folks know. In the meantime, the novel's out on Kindle. This link takes you to Amazon's UK site, and it's up on all international Amazon sites too. 

The artwork and layout work's been done by my brother, Maxim Peter Griffin. You can find him on Twitter at @maximpetergriff and also here at his website.  

So here we go...

A new website, and a new blog. Hello, by the way. Welcome. Sit wherever you like. Thanks for popping by. 

Awkward mingling over, and hovering uncertainly in the kitchen dispensed with, let's crack on. In previous blogging iterations I've focused on book and movie reviews plus pointing the way to UK-based writing competitions. Occasionally I may resort to doing that, but the focus of this blog will be on the practice of creative writing. 

Don't worry; I'll not be posting up positive bland "you can do it" messages, quotations purportedly from famous authors or any of that kind of stuff. There's a place for all of that, of course, though I'm sure there's plenty of others in your timelines at some point or other who do that a hundred times better and more sincerely than I could ever do. 

Nope, much of this will be personal trials and tribulations kinda stuff. Banging my head against the wall material. Expressions of bewilderment and frustration. In there I'm sure there'll be eureka moments and suchlike, but I'll keep that to a minimum wherever I can. So, a blog about the journey as much as the destination. 

I like to think that blogs should have a routine. Regularity is the key. So, a post a week minimum, more than likely written at the weekend. That's the way forward. So keep me in check, please, and feel free to chide me when I slacken. 

Also, a blog, for me at least, is a moment in time. It shouldn't be overly-polished. Great if you can produce perfect material, of course, but these are first draft thoughts (and I daresay there'll be some first draft expression of those thoughts too).