Between books

Grey stone building with an arch that leads through it to another arch and a grassy space beyond.

If I were to tell you that I’m not writing anything at the moment, it would be an evident falsehood. I mean, here I am, tapping away, writing a post. I spent the afternoon writing things for work. And even when I’ve finished this post I’ll move on to the short story I’m trying to finish for an end of January deadline.

I’m not even not writing a book. Technically.

I have the Ruritanian thing, but that’s something I’m writing for fun, and when it stops being fun I stop writing it. I also stop writing it when real politics makes fictional politics feel either too depressing or too frivolous to write about. There are days when I think I can subvert the trope of the plucky English adventurer fixing other people’s countries, and there are days when it seems too far gone even to be subverted. I think I’ve worked out a way around that, but at present I don’t have the motivation for the plotting and planning and Post-It manoeuvres that it would need. I’ve written about 5000 words on it since Christmas. It’ll get done when it gets done, and if I’m happy with it I’ll publish it.

I have a couple of other semi-active projects – one on writing while keeping the day job, and one very specific and experimental anthology.

I know what comes next for Stancester, but I’m not starting on that for reasons including: a) I don’t know how it finishes; b) it feels a bit heavy; c) [monster story about how everyone who liked the first two will hate it because it won’t be lesfic]; d) I’ve only just been there.

So I’m not not writing, at all. But I am consciously playing with the idea of not writing, of seeing who I am when I’m not writing. I’m playing with the idea of being enough, of being sufficient, when I’m flopped on the sofa watching the skiing, when I’ve slept through my alarm, when I’m writing three words in half an hour, when I’m not writing anything at all. In these times when doing nothing has become the virtue that perhaps it always should have been, I’m giving myself a bit of space, and resisting the temptation to fill that space with work or guilt. Or trying to, anyway.

Perhaps what I really mean is that I’m writing when I feel like it, and writing what I feel like, and giving myself a break from the associated hustle. I am stepping away from Twitter, which (for me) seems to be the highway to fruitless rage and depression. I am dropping my expectations of when the next book will be finished and what it will be. I am going to stop chasing reviews. I might write nothing but short stories. I might write nothing at all. I might abandon the Ruritanian thing entirely, or I might get it out in time for Christmas. I might post here less, or I might post here more. You never know.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: R

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Ruritania is, for me, where it all started. My father read The Prisoner of Zenda to me when I was perhaps ten or eleven, and it’s stuck.

Anthony Hope presents the kingdom of Ruritania as if we already know about it, introducing his narrator, Rudolf Rassendyll, and the Rassendylls in general with reference to

an highly interesting and important kingdom, one which had played no small part in European history, and might do the like again

The journey to Ruritania occupies the first half of chapter 2. Rudolf goes via Paris and Dresden – a city from which, in the reality we currently inhabit, one can go east into Poland or south into Czechia. (The train in the photo at the top of this post is waiting at Dresden Hauptbahnhof before heading south to Prague.) South feels more likely to me. Ruritania is implied to be, if not huge, reasonably expansive in terms of territory: Zenda is ten miles from the frontier, and Strelsau, the capital, fifty miles further than that. And there’s no suggestion that Strelsau is very close to any other frontier.

In fact, Hope uses a pretty light touch all round. The descriptions in The Prisoner of Zenda are reserved for smaller geographical features – woods, castles, cities – which I’ll come to later in the series. Paradoxically, that’s part of what makes Ruritania feel real. You don’t need to be told what it looks like. It isn’t Anthony Hope’s fault that you weren’t paying attention in Geography. Or History. But the imaginative landscape is huge.

Philip Pullman doesn’t stray so very far either from this locale or from this model for Razkavia, in The Tin Princess. He shies away from doing anything drastic to the map of Europe, squeezing it in between Prussia and Bohemia, and making it ‘hardly bigger than Berkshire’.

But he has put some thought into other aspects of geography:

The country wasn’t especially prosperous. There had once been rich mines in the Karlstein mountains, producing copper and a little silver, but as long as two centuries before they had begun to run out, at least of copper. There was plenty of some ore that looked like copper but wasn’t, and which poisoned the miners who worked it. It was so useless and unpleasant that they called it Kupfer-Nickel, or devil’s copper, and left it well alone. Much later someone discovered that Kupfer-Nickel was a compound of arsenic and a new metal, which they called nickel,  and by the beginning of the nineteenth century they’d found some uses for it, so the mines of Karlstein began to work again.

This will, of course, be important later, but in the meantime:

The people milked the cows that grazed on the upland pastures, made wine from the grapes that grew on the slopes of the Elpenbach Valley, and hunted the game in the forests. In the capital, Eschtenburg, there was an opera house, where the composer Weber had once conducted; there was a theatre and a cathedral and a pretty baroque palace, all fantastic columns and fountains and icing-sugar plasterwork; and there was a park with a grotto-pavilion built by Razkavia’s one mad king, who had been fairly harmless, as mad kings went. In the 1840s, the younger set of the aristocracy, tired of the stuffy life around the king and his conservative court, tried to establish a little spa called Andersbad, down the Elpenbach Valley, as a centre of fashion. There was a casino; Johann Strauss had played there with his orchestra and they’d even paid him to write an Andersbad Waltz, although it wasn’t one of his best.

I should have used this book for A and E, as well. Never mind. Here’s Weber, in Dresden again.

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I’ve mentioned Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia a few times in this series, but it seems remiss not to talk about Rotenek and, in particular, the Rotein. The river shapes the city, and the society, and, quite often, the plot. The social calendar is driven by the flooding; so is religious observance; so is public health (or lack of it).

High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.

They celebrate floodtide in Rotenek when the waters turn muddy and rise along the steps of the Nikuleplaiz as far as the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, who watches over the marketplace. Sometimes the floods come higher and wash through Nikule’s church and along the basements of the great houses along the Vezenaf. Then the streets of the lower town merge with the chanulezes, and all the putrid mud from the banks and canals is stirred up, bringing the threat of river fever. For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.

But sometimes floodtide fails to come. […]

This ambivalent relationship between the river and the citizens is so central to the books that it took me a while to find a passage that encapsulated it. It makes the series. And it makes the city.

Finally, I’m heading back north and west. I commented over at Licence To Queer how muted in tone Casino Royale feels in contrast to the rest of the Bond books – a result, I think, of its being the first of the series, where Fleming’s still finding his way in, and its having been written and published so soon after the end of the Second World War, in a Europe that was still working out how it was going to rebuild itself. And Royale-les-Eaux typifies that. This isn’t the Côte d’Azur, it’s the opposite side of France, and it’s grey and shabby:

Royale-les-Eaux, which lies near the mouth of the Somme before the flat coast-line soars up from the beaches of southern Picardy to the Brittany cliffs which run on to Le Havre, had experienced much the same fortunes at Trouville.

Royale (without the ‘Eaux’) also started as a small fishing village and its rise to fame as a fashionable watering place during the Second Empire was as meteoric as that of Trouville. But as Deauville killed Trouville, so, after a long period of decline, did Le Touquet kill Royale.

At the turn of the century, when things were going badly for the little seaside town and when the fashion was to combine pleasure with a ‘cure’, a natural spring in the hills behind Royale was discovered to contain enough diluted sulphur to have a beneficent effect on the liver. […]

It did not long withstand the powerful combines of Vichy and Perrier and Vittel. There came a series of lawsuits, a number of people lost a lot of money and very soon its sale was again entirely local. Royale fell back on the takings from the French and English families during the summer, on its fishing-fleet in winter and on the crumbs which fell to its elegantly dilapidated Casino from the table at Le Touquet.

Here Fleming uses not only familiar names and places in which to ground his fictional town (some of them with ominous resonances), he gives it a mineral water too. And, more importantly, a plausible past. I always have a soft spot for a run-down seaside town. Though the 2p machines are more my level.

Books mentioned in this post

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Alpennia series, Heather Rose Jones (passage quoted is from Mother of Souls)

The Tin Princess, Philip Pullman

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Don’t look down

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It’s been a while since I last began a book. I wrote down the first words of A Spoke In The Wheel in early 2016, just as I’d got Speak Its Name out of the door. It took me two years to get that written, edited, and published.

Then I decided I’d give myself a couple of months off writing novels, while I caught up on my travel write-ups.

Then I decided that actually I did want to get started on the next novels (yes, plural) after all.

Since then I’ve been very carefully not freaking out.

It honestly is like remembering how to ride a bike. (And I know what I’m talking about here.) It’s not so much that you forget how to do it, as that you lose your nerve. You don’t lose the physical ability; you lose the unthinking trust that you can take both feet off the ground and still not fall over.

Except in this case I’m not just riding the bicycle, I’m creating the very ground it’s traversing. I’m setting out into the unknown, knowing very well that the unknown doesn’t exist yet.

And it’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been writing blog posts; I’ve been writing short stories; I’ve been writing up my travels. It’s just that a full-length novel feels so much bigger, and until it’s written there’s so much empty space where I know there should be words.

It would be daunting, if I let myself think about how daunting it is.

I’m not a plotter, never have been. The best I can say is that I know where I’m headed. I know what needs to have happened for the ending to be satisfying. As to what’s between here and there, I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet. It’s a bit scary, really. I find myself wanting to go slower. I want to get off my bicycle and walk.

Don’t look down, I tell myself. Don’t look at the yawning chasm that represents all the research you haven’t yet done, all the words you haven’t yet written.

Just write a little bit.

Put one foot after the other. Get the notebook out. Take the cap off the pen. Open the notebook to the next blank page.

If the world of fiction is refusing to co-operate, write about Venice, or Bratislava, or the red-painted wooden houses of Sweden.

Writing about my own experiences is easy, and, sooner or later, fiction co-operates. I try to remember what I had for dinner in Ljubljana and find myself writing Lydia’s musings on the question of idolatry instead. And slowly, slowly, the novel begins to materialise. The snappy exchange, written down, brings its context in after it. Writing down the context raises questions. Why does she think that? Oh, hang on, does he really know that, or is it just a lucky guess? Answering those questions invokes new scenes. The more I write, the more I know what to write next.

At the moment, the sequel to Speak Its Name is standing at about 6000 words. More to the point, I’m beginning to see how the whole thing is going to fit together. I’m beginning to understand the dynamics between the different characters. Things that I’ve known for as long as I’ve been planning this book suddenly make sense: Oh. She’s upset because they turn up unannounced. And the bedroom thing is awkward because they’re not allowed to live together… Awkward facts that I thought I was going to have to work around turn out to fit in nicely. OK, the timing won’t work for the transfer, but instead we could have the RA quitting, maybe he was really stressed because he was about to get married and thought it would get better when that had happened, but it hasn’t, but he can also be the example of the marriage that does work. And I am beginning to get a better sense of what I still need to find out, and who I need to talk to in order to do that.

What I’m referring to in my head as ‘the Ruritanian thing’ is a way behind, with a scant thousand words on the page and only the haziest idea of what needs to happen in between the beginning and the end. Half of the characters are missing names, and the plot is missing all sorts of vital components like what and how and why. Maybe this one won’t happen. I hope it does. I think it’ll be fun. And I’m aware that a large part of my unease probably comes from the fact that I haven’t got very far into it yet, that, the further I get in, the better I’ll feel about it.

Heigh-ho. All I can do with either of them is keep on writing. The main thing is not to look down.