Books now available through Kobo and Smashwords

Have finally got around to uploading both Torc and The Prospect of This City to both Kobo and Smashwords, which means that they're available for all e-readers and mobile devices. This means that those who prefer not to buy their books from Amazon can join in the fun too. 

In future, if there's stuff that I self-publish, I won't do it exclusively through Amazon, but will release simultaneously across multiple retailers. At present, though, the paperback versions of both books are only available via Amazon. Am still investigating alternatives, though the economics of self-publishing on my modest scale don't lend themselves readily to anything but a print-on-demand option (which is what Amazon do).

Anyway, you can find me on Smashwords, and on Kobo for all your ebook needs, in addition to Amazon.     

Some Great Fire of London resources

With the 350th anniversary of the 1666 Great Fire of London only a few months away at the time of writing (the anniversary is 2nd September) there's more Fire-related material out there than ever before. Here's a few resource that might be of interest if you're fascinated, like me, with the Fire and its contexts.

This short BBC radio programme (it run about 10 minutes) features excerpts from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and schoolboy William Taswell, and are perhaps the closest thing we have to a commentary of the Fire.

This 2013 animation gives us a 3D flythrough of London at the time of the Fire:

From 1995, the BBC children's programme Magic Grandad; in this episode, Grandad and gang go back in time and meet Samuel Pepys and experience the Fire:

From Peter Ackroyd's documentary series London, the sequence on the Fire:

The history of the Fire is a recurring topic in primary schools, and there are several school videos where pupils have built reconstructions of 17th century London and had them set alight. Here's an example: 

Here's the Drunk History take on the event: 

And an animation made using Playmobil characters, from the children of Lisle Marsden school in Grimsby:   

The always-excellent Museum of London has a wealth of resources on the Great Fire, and there's a new exhibition - Fire! Fire! - which opens in July 2016. Here's the museum's present collection of Fire-related artefacts.  

Other resources, including some educational material, is online at the National Archives site.

Harrison Ainsworth's 1841 historical novel Old St Paul's, which was perhaps the first to conflate the plague and the Fire into a single narrative, is available in multiple free ebook formats from Project Gutenberg.   

BBC Radio 4's In Our Time has an episode on the Great Fire archived here

And in the interests of completeness, here's another attempt to mix comedy and history, in the History Bites retelling of the Great Fire:

This link takes you through to the part of the site where I discuss my own Great Fire-related novel, The Prospect of this City, as well as providing some additional resources on historical fiction. 

My novels Torc and The Prospect of This City are available here.  

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.   

A new cover for The Prospect of this City

Prospect has a new cover. Here it is: 

Hope you like it. I do. The cover's by Kit Foster of Kit Foster Design

The book's as before - I've kept the woodcut-alike frontispiece by Maxim Peter Griffin (which was the previous ebook cover) in both paperback and ebook editions - but the front cover's had a new splash of paint to make it more immediately appealing. I've got a blog post brewing about working how to work out how to self-publish by doing it the tricky way and finding things out for yourself; one aspect of that is the necessity for an immediate cover.

Max (the aforementioned illustrator-brother) and I spent an amusing twenty minutes or so in the local WH Smith going through book covers.

Though there's some great work out there, there's an awful lot of variations upon a theme. Thriller? A silhouette of a bloke on a road (they're called "thrillouettes" in the trade, I'm led to believe). Female protagonist? This year, something involving trees appears the way to go. Of course, there are perennials. A rosy-cheeked young woman with basket in hand if it's a Catherine Cookson-style saga. Armoured fella charging towards you with a battle in the background if it's an action-oriented historical novel (what someone once called the "Andy McStab" approach).         

I've been to more than one writing convention when there's been a book buyer from one of the major chains on one of the panels. The cover's the thing, they emphasise. Especially for online and railway purchases; what sells a book is the call to action (i.e. buy the book) given by a simple and direct cover. Books, often, are impulse purchases.

So that's an element of the thinking here. Prospect is a book, after all, about the Great Fire of London. So there's a need to have a, er, Great Fire of London-related image front and centre. 

Anyway, I hope you like the new cover! Here comes the hard sell: Prospect is out now and available here - at the time of posting, the files are still propagating their way through Amazon's systems, so the new cover might not show for a day or so!       

Bawcocks and beanbellies: on 17th century century slang

A little side-project (I've got a few of these, it seems) of mine is compiling a dictionary of seventeenth-century slang. This is partly for its own sake (it's interesting as heck) and partly for research purposes. Not, though, as one might imagine, for use as a writing tool in and of itself, but for context.

Too much period folderol, and you run the risk of, at best, showcasing research for its own sake ( the "I've read it and made notes dammit, so I'm going to use it" school of writing) or, and perhaps worse,  making the text all but unintelligible to anyone other than period experts and the worryingly patient.

What the language specific to any point in time gives you, though, is a sense not just of the way words were used, but of the contexts in which slang developed. You get a peek into the crimes and the prejudices, the working lives and the enthusiasms, the obsessions and the mindsets of the age. You also get a feel for the speed of language mutation. In the 21st century, slang burns itself out fast: instant dissemination ensures that the language of a year loses its novelty fast, and we, addicted to above all the new, crave the fresh.

Language moved slower before social media, before TV and almost universal ability to read, before radio, before the ubiquity of the printed word. Some of the slang from the Restoration era (and earlier) is still around, and a surprising amount of contemporary insulting and denigrating wordage has its roots in the age. The connections, the shared associations, and the abiding preoccupations link us, through slang - often the unfiltered and thus a truer picture of the time - to the past.

My compilation method is pretty basic and long-winded. It involves a copy of Jonathan Green's Dictionary of Slang, a pen and a ledger, and some time. It means reading the dictionary alphabetically and writing down longhand entries that are specific to the 17th century.

Yeah, I know.

What you get, though - partly through the exercise and partly through the time it takes to make notes on each - is a better sense of the period. It's hugely useful. And yep, the occasional word might make its way into a story, but better and handier than that, the feeling for the history is magnified. As someone who's written one seventeenth century-set novel (and with others on the horizon) any tactic that gets you back to the past is to be welcomed.

By way of example, a few snippets from the early pages. These are my notes but the work derives from Green's Dictionary of Slang - a book that's pretty much essential for anyone with a love of words. Mine's an old edition picked up in a branch of The Works, though there's a three-volume set from 2010 that's a thing of beauty. 

an admiral of the narrow seas: a drunk who vomits over their neighbour at table

an affidavit man: a professional witness - someone who will swear to anything

allicholy: melancholy through drink

angler: a thief who uses a hook and a pole        

arse-worm: a small person

badger-legged: having one leg shorter than the other

a barleybun gentleman: a rich man who chooses to live poorly

barnacle: a toady, a hanger-on

barnacles: spectacles

basket-scrambler: someone who lives on charity

bawcock: a fine fellow

beanbelly: someone from Leicestershire

beau trap: either a fixed card game, or else a badly-laid paving stone, the kind that would splash one's finery

belly-up: pregnant

bingo: brandy (a bingo-boy is a man who loves brandy, and a bingo-mort a woman likewise)

 Halfway through the Bs and you get a feel for a world obsessed with sex, food, vomiting, illness, thievery, swindles and cons, insults, mockery, taking the mickey out of rustics, and so on. Maybe not that much has changed in the last 350 years or so...

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

 

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