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 As someone who’s unpublished in the novel form, there are no clues which might be deduced from my name in the way that a potential reader might assume certain (albeit differentiated)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