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.    






Market stall book finds

One of the many upsides of living in a smallish market town is, well, the market. Louth in Lincolnshire has three a week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. So on Wednesday, I was mooching through, about not-doing-much-writing business. Once you get to know the market, you know the people and the regular stalls; new arrivals and no-shows are cause for comment.

So, there was some chit-chat about the rumour that a new tea van would be pitching up soon; the lack of a consistent tea van has been an ongoing source of much grumbling since Stan hung up his apron a few years ago. Other talk centred around the lack of development of the market square pub, the Mason's Arms, which has been dark since August Bank Holiday, despite assertions of a refit and a swift reopening.

A few purchases: a loaf of cheese-topped bread, some bacon. No DVDs today from the music and movies stall though. And then a browse over the books. The fella on the book stall does most of his trade in Lee Childs and in Cooksonesque sagas of rosy-cheeked millowners daughters done wrong by the wastrel son of the local landowner, though one end of the stall is given over to historical-related stuff. It's always worth a look. On Wednesday, he had a copy of a 1991 publication called Land, People and Landscape: Essays on the HIstory of the Lincolnshire Region.  

It's gold. Articles on the Green Man in rural churches, enclosure systems, abandoned villages, playground skipping rhymes, medieval pottery finds, imports into the region, on pan tiles, 17th century gravestones, Regency wanted posters for the Grimsby area and the like. Naturally, I bought it.

This is part of the thing about having a mind that is attuned to possible sources of inspiration. There's a lifetime's folklore and local story stuff here potentially. And as I'm a 17th-century nerd, articles titled "Rural furnishings of the seventeenth century" are like catnip.

This isn't the kind of book I might have bought online, but having had a chance for a quick outdoor browse, I was hooked. All the "look inside" pages on Amazon in the world, handy though they might be, can't really compare to a riffle through the index on a blustery February morning. Anyway, I went off, purchase in hand, got a coffee and spent the thick end of an hour cooing at the pictures. Here's a few by way of example.

The last one's my favourite, I think. The bed's a roll-out; it fits back under the four-poster. Think of the implications of that. The fella's taken his hat off, either to show some manners, to get in closer, or else to hide trouserly fluctuation, the impetuous fool. On the left-hand side, look close. There's a little face poking out from under the covers. 

Plus, you pick up little bits of language. A brandreth, for example, is another word for trivet. Who knew?

Records exist of household good not least because probate inventories from the time record what was in the home at the time of the householder's death; something like a third of householders of the time have extant records, so there's scope to make some generalisations about what folk had. However, small items are generally not recorded, except as "things seen and unseen", "trumpery" or even "lumber".

Lots of good stuff, then. And all from a market stall.