Torc: origins - getting the original idea down

This is a post about where my novel Torc came from.

It's August 2011, and I'm in London for the week working on my doctorate. Actually, I'm not. Not unless you consider wandering around the capital acting like a tourist as representing high-level academic endeavour. Which, for me, qualifies as work. So, yes, I'm counting it.

So, yep. I'm hard at it.

It's the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend; naturally I'm in the City of London. A couple of streets have been cordoned off because there's some filming going on. The financial district is like that; a ghost town outside the working week. Ideal for filming purposes. I skirt the shoot. No, I don't see anyone famous. 

I've been walking the path of the book that I'm working on as part of the PhD - I'm getting the timings right for my characters walking around the area. You can do this: 21st century London is pretty much laid out according to the medieval and earlier street systems.

And besides, I tend to gravitate back to Pudding Lane, the Monument, and the environs of the immediate Great Fire of London geography. If you've read The Prospect of This City, you'll see why.    

So I'm there or thereabouts. Not that far from the multiple entries into Bank/Monument tube station, though on this occasion I've walked over the Millennium Bridge, skirted St Paul's, and headed east.

And then it hits me. An idea drops from the Story Gods, or rises from the Hell Of Unprocessed Vaguely Promising Ideas. It doesn't matter. I've got to capture it, whatever it is.

I don't know about you, but when an idea arrives for me, it comes in one of two ways. It's about 50/50 which way it'll be. Half of the time, an image or a fragment of prose will roll around, or there'll be a creative red flag that posts itself next to something. Finding out what the whole idea might turn out to be then becomes akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle of uniform grey tiles - they're all face down  - when you've only got one bit where you can see the bigger picture. And the box the bits isn't to hand. So you've got to assemble it the hard way.

This wasn't like that. It was one of the other occasions. When you get a bulk delivery of story all at once. It's like Santa dropping in. When I was a little 'un, I had (as did my siblings) a paper sack (I was born in the late 60s and we didn't use plastic for that kind of thing, you young whippersnapper). And so Father Christmas left his presents in the sack, which had been put out at the end of the bed. All you had to do was to empty it out to see what you'd got.

I'm in possession of a sackful of story. It's old, old advice this, but it's nevertheless right; record that idea in some way, and then come back to it. If you trust to memory then there's no guarantees that you'll even be able to recall that you had something important not to forget. So write it down. Send yourself a text, write a memo on your phone or on the back of your hand. Whatever. Just get that notion preserved.  

A few words won't do that for this, though. I've got pens and notebooks in my bag. Let's sit down and scribe it out.

There's a Starbucks at the north end of Pudding Lane, at the junction of Eastcheap and Gracechurch Street. I go in. Being the weekend it's all but empty, save for staff and a huddle of five young male City workers; they're discussing some office coup they're scheming. They're all in suits despite the weekend and they each give off the whiff of not being sure about what to have worn. Each has snuck off from a significant other with a tall tale about having to go into the office for a couple of hours.

I get a coffee and a pot of yoghurty breakfast mulch. And I start writing. It takes about an hour and a half. I buy a second coffee at the half-way point. By the time I'm done, I've got the whole thing charted out, chapter by chapter. Soup to nuts. it's out of my head and onto the page. At some point between coffee number two and finishing up, the City boys have scuttled away. 

And oh, the relief.

I'm left-handed, and I drag my hand over what I write. I do what I can in the coffee shop loos to soap off the ink stain from the gel pen, but all it does is fade some. Ah well.

It's done, and that's the main thing. 

This is where the idea stays. It's not until 2014 that I come back to it. I re-read the notes, find them workable, and start thinking about how to go about writing a first draft.

Other ideas then come to hand: a couple of holidays that I've been on give me location details - I end up using aspects of a Welsh coastal village and a Scottish one to synthesise the eventual main location - and I write up an opening list of research needs, plus some initial character notes. There's nothing that can't be back-filled though, no information that I can't proceed without. So I get to work. Eighteen months later,some shifting priorities (both writing and otherwise) and here we are. Job done.

I may well have written the same core idea if I hadn't made those notes. I might have let it go altogether. I might have had that nagging doubt; that I'd let a book slip away. This way, at least, I don't have to wonder. For good or ill, the core of Torc was captured on August bank holiday, on a Saturday morning, in a chain coffee shop, when I should really have been doing something else.  

Torc is available here.

The Prospect of This City is available here.    






Torc: a sneak preview of a new novel

I've got a new book coming out in a few weeks. It's called Torc. It's several things: a book set in Scotland with two young female protagonists; it's got timeslip elements as well as some historical features, being set half in the present, and half in the second century.

The book's in the final stages of being prepped and proofed at the minute; a cover's on its way as well. However, here's a heads-up on the opening...

Torc: chapter one

Ailsa stood barefoot on the sand, looking out to where the river met the sea. She loved this, the hour between night-time and daylight, and she loved the freedom that she had, that her parents gave her, to come down here on her own and be one with the morning.

The time was precious for a hundred reasons.

Because this was the hour that she could be alone. Because this was the hour she could think. Because this was the hour that she could learn about the ways that the sun and the sky and the sand and the sea worked with each other, and as one in unity. Together these elements made sense. Together they made Scotland.

An hour wasn’t enough. It would soon be over and then the day’s work would begin. When it was term time she was excused chores in the hotel that her mother and father ran, but now out of school as the summer holidays had begun, she had to do her full share, eleven years old and or not.

That was another reason to be up and out of bed, to slip on a tee-shirt and some shorts and just get down here quiet and quick. It wasn’t just about the landscape or the whisper of the sea breaking at the water’s edge. It was about claiming some time for herself.

That was all the more important now. Most children, she supposed, were like her friends at school and had the long summer weeks to go on organised family holidays or to laze around at home and do what they wanted. Ailsa’s life wasn’t like that. Her parents’ hotel was just a small one - with nine bedrooms, a bar and a restaurant - but this was their busy time of year. 

Through the winter they just about got by, mostly with walkers and climbers, sometimes the odd party of out-of-season artists or photographers, bird watchers, history nerds and archaeology fans. They came for the views and the rare species, the quiet wilderness, the heritage trail and the ancient monuments not far off. But money was tight, though she knew her Ma and Da did what they could to shield her from it, and everything relied on the summer so they’d have enough in the bank to see them through the dark slow months till the clocks went forward again and with that movement, a more certain shift in trade.

The summer customers were different. They were richer, for one thing, or at least more prepared to spend what they’d saved. And there were more of them. The hotel was pretty much booked up right through to the new school year beginning, and having all those people coming through the doors meant that everyone was expected to do more than just help out.

Breakfast was Ailsa’s allotted time; and yet another reason to be both awake and getting some time for herself right now. She was needed in the kitchen by six a.m. so that they could be ready to start serving meals by seven. Breakfast ran through till ten o’clock; sometimes people slept in late, and there were often day-trippers who’d walk in unannounced for something to eat too. They were a pain, but their custom couldn’t be turned away. Another hour, until eleven, to clean down the dining room and lay tables for lunch, and then Ailsa was free for the rest of the day.

Things were different this week though.

Ailsa was babysitting.

Not the toddler kind of babysitting; all kiddie cartoons on the telly and pretending to be enthusiastic at whatever doodles the kid had drawn or their repetitive games with toy cars or dolls or whatever. They had family staying, and that meant Ailsa was expected to entertain her cousin Tom.

Ailsa was now at the water’s edge, white foam sliding over her where the sea broke over her toes. The cold was comforting. It felt real, natural, honest. 

Da had his brother, Uncle Harry, and his wife Aunt May, staying. That meant their son, Tom, was with them too. And by ‘staying’, that was exactly what was meant. They weren’t in the spare room of the flat her family shared on the top floor of the hotel. Uncle Harry had insisted on them coming as paying guests. ‘You’re running a business, Davey,’ he’d said. ‘We’re no different from any other customer. The hotel’s got to pay its way, and that means us paying too.’

Ailsa always felt weird when she heard her Da spoken to as though he was a little brother. He was one, she supposed, to Uncle Harry, but that didn’t make it right. It sounded patronising, and besides, no-one called him by his first name. To her mother he was a soft-spoken “McCulloch” and to the few regulars that there were to be had, he was “Mr Mac” or sometimes “Cully”. To Ailsa he was “Dad” or more often and more simply “Da”. But “Davey”, “David” or any other variation? No.  

A seagull came in low over the water, grazing the waves on the down-flap of its wings, before arcing back up into the sky. It wheeled, apparently banking around for another run in the opposite direction, but then it broke off and started flying away. Maybe whatever had attracted it to the water, something glittering like moving fish, had shifted off and the gull had gone to try its luck elsewhere.

The bay faced due west, more or less. That meant the sun rose behind them, but it also meant that the sunsets could be incredible.

Flecks of sunlight caught the gull’s now-beating wings. And then the bird disappeared. Alisa stared into the still half-dark sky until watching after the bird made her eyes hurt.

That was when she realised something. Uncle Harry and the others had arrived late the night before having driven the three hours across from Edinburgh and there’d not really been the time for anything other than quick hellos.

Ailsa would see them at breakfast. Worse, she’d be taking their orders and serving them at their table.

The gull was gone, the sky empty. Ailsa couldn’t feel her toes. The comfort of the cold had turned to numbness.

Ailsa trudged back up the beach to the hotel. Today was Monday. They were staying over until Thursday morning. That meant three full days, and four breakfast sittings, to put up with cousin Tom and his stupid city smugness.


They’d had the hotel almost as long as Ailsa could remember. Once, when they’d been asked to write a story on their first memories, for an English class, Ailsa had filled three pages with her arrival here in Darachmouth and at The New Hotel. She could only have been two and was still being wheeled about in a buggy, but nevertheless she packed those three pages with her tight but not-yet-neat writing about the day she’d first seen the hotel; when they’d come over the little bridge which separated the car park from the hotel and found it, all white walls and black-painted windows and sign, all of it framed by the beach and sea beyond. Ma still had the exercise book she’d done the writing in, tucked away in one of the boxes in the attic along with her baby shoes and clippings from her first haircut.

Eight years ago. The way you heard grown-ups talking about it, an amount of time like eight years was nothing. They were wrong. Eight years was Ailsa’s whole life, or at least the parts of it that she could remember, and in all that time she’d never had cousin Tom staying over.

He and his family had visited, of course, and Ailsa’s own family had been over themselves to Edinburgh a few times, but not often, and never overnight.

There was something about this visit. Something different. Something off. Ailsa knew, the way you just know sometimes, without anyone in the room ever saying out loud that a problem exists, that there’s an issue.

It was there last night in the hellos when Tom and Uncle Harry and Aunt May had turned up. An awkwardness in the greetings, like they weren’t family, but strangers who’d met for the first time and had been told by others to be friendly to each other.

Ailsa got down on her haunches and pressed her hands into the wet sand. The squelching sounds the sand made when she pulled her fingers free always made her smile. Nearby there were worm-casts from lugworms, curly brown squiggles breaking up the smoothness of the sand. Maybe that’s what the bird had been on the lookout for.

Behind her, a shout. Ma, calling her in.

Ailsa turned and waved, holding her sandy left hand splayed out. Four fingers and a thumb. Five minutes. Please.

The wave and pointing-to-the-wrist gesture back was unmistakable. Okay. Five minutes. No more.

Ailsa turned back to the water and counted in her head - in elephants: one elephant, two elephants - to three hundred. By the time she finished the count, the water was up to her ankles and she couldn’t feel anything from her knees down because of the cold of the water.

Then she ran back up the beach to the hotel to get a shower and to get changed into her kitchen clothes and to begin the breakfast service.

She kept the thought of the water’s cold inside. If Tom started any of his tricks, she’d call on it to keep herself from getting mad.

At least, she'd try. 


There we go. As always, glad to hear your responses (and your thoughts on the notion of previewing work before publication!). 

There'll be more news about Torc once the book cover and the signed-off MS is sent off for publication.

In the meantime, my Great Fire of London-set novel The Prospect of this City is out now for Kindle and in paperback.