In twelve days, it will be Easter. I’m not quite sure how. This year has slipped past without my really noticing.
I noticed Candlemas, because that was the day of Pa’s funeral. I noticed Ash Wednesday, because we had a friend staying and she reminded us about pancakes. I noticed Lady Day (the first day of the year, in old money, and maybe this is a good year to claim that do-over), but I was in no position to do anything about it because I was flat out on the sofa with Covid. And now here we are in April, and this Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and the Sunday after that will be Easter.
2022 has felt rather as if I’m bobbing around on a raft on the ocean, and every time I get myself and my raft the right way up another huge wave has crashed down and swamped me again and all I can do is hang on.
That sounds gloomy, and, oddly enough, I’m not feeling all that gloomy. Not tonight, anyway. I’m reasonably confident that the shore’s over there somewhere and, so long as I keep hold of the rope I’ll wash up on dry land eventually. But the first three months of this year have disappeared in death administration, and fortnightly dashes to the Isle of Wight, and Covid, and I assume I must have been doing my day job in between times.
What I haven’t been doing much of is writing. Or at least I think I haven’t. I never write much on the Isle of Wight. It’s like another dimension. The train journeys have worked their usual magic, it’s true, but I’m way behind on typing up the longhand from those train journeys. I’m very aware that I’ve been neglecting this blog. And the last two weeks have been (wait for it) a write-off. All I managed to write when I had Covid was a report on the event at which I caught Covid.
And I was feeling gloomy about this on Sunday evening.
I had high hopes for this year. I was aiming to get an anthology of short stories out in time for Ventnor Fringe and the Ruritanian novel done for Christmas. Those would have been entirely reasonable goals, if this had turned out to be a usual year. As things are, not only have I lost three months, but those projects have got all tangled up with grief. Technically, they need ruthlessness. Emotionally, they need gentleness. The Book Bus will be at Ventnor Fringe, and I’ll be there too, but there’s no way I’m going to get those little stories finished off and tidied up for July, not when they’ve been joined by hundreds of other stories that perhaps aren’t mine to tell. And really I was writing the Ruritanian thing for myself and for Pa, and at the moment I can’t quite bring myself write Buchanesque chase scenes with trams when I know he won’t read them.
So I’m regrouping. The Ruritanian novel is reclaiming its ‘frivolous side project’ status, and I’ll work on it for fun, when it becomes fun again. The book bus stories will happen one of these years, but it won’t be this year. I’m shifting my focus to the 1920s Romeo and Juliet thing. That’s a little annoying in that I have 26,000 words on that, compared to 58,000 on the Ruritanian thing, but it’s going to be quite a lot easier in that it’s character-driven (very much my strength) as opposed to plot-driven (very much not).
This leaves me with the question of what I publish in 2022. Of course, nothing is an option. But I’ve been publishing a book every even-numbered year since 2016 now, and there’s part of me that’s reluctant to spoil the pattern. One possible answer is an anthology of short stories – not the book bus stories (well, maybe I’ll borrow one of them), but a selection of vaguely sapphic vaguely historical things. Things like Stronger Than Death, which appeared in an anthology by a publisher that has since stopped trading, and The Sisters’ House, which was written for a very specific call for submissions and wasn’t selected, and Prima Donna, for which the rights returned to me ages ago, and The Secret of the Glacier, which has never been published at all. I’d quite like to pull them all together, and write a few more stories to round the collection out. I should be able to manage that over the next eight months. Although, now I come to look at my calendar for May and June and July and August, it might be more of a challenge than you’d think…
I love the moment when it turns out that the book I’m working on is, in fact, going to turn out to be a book.
The first time this happened to me was with Speak Its Name. That was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had the backdrop (student politics) and I had the characters (students) moving in front of it, occasionally affected by it, but never affecting it. It was flat. Boring.
Then I realised that what I needed to do was to get my most political character involved in the politics.
It sounds so simple. Perhaps it was. All I can say is, it took me a very long time to realise, and it changed the whole book for the better. It turned it from two dimensions into three, like inflating a bouncy castle, or sewing a pair of trousers together. It wasn’t just that my characters were now joined to the background at the point where one of them decided to involve the Students’ Union. It joined all sorts of other bits together, and it made the whole thing neater, more coherent. More interesting. It made the whole book work.
A Spoke in the Wheel and The Real World were, so far as I can remember, better behaved. Oh, getting The Real World nailed down was rather like wrestling an octopus that was also Tam Lin, but it always felt like something, well, real, if I could only get a handle on it. And with A Spoke In The Wheel both characters and plot landed more or less fully formed, bar a giant hole in the middle that I had to work out how to fill.
This time it happened at about the 50,000 word mark. No, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I decided to take advantage of the general #AmWriting mood to make some progress on the Ruritanian thing. This is the project that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the last three years if not more. It seems to prefer being a side project. It modestly shuffled out of the way to let me concentrate on The Real World. It refused to be written at all earlier this year, and only started cooperating when I got swept off my feet by the historical thing. Nine months further on – nine months in which I’ve been trying to add a sentence to each project each day – it’s suddenly taking itself seriously.
Now this, being a Ruritanian thing, requires plot. It requires plot on a level that I’ve never contemplated before. There are double-crosses and Chekhov’s guns and timetables. The action of the last book happens over the course of a year. The action of this book takes place over the course of five days. I discovered the other day that I had my main character drinking five coffees between midnight on Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. I’m counting the espresso martini here, but still.
Of course, that’s easily fixable. I’ve already turned one of those coffees into a slice of cake. The real challenge has been getting the characters to do the things that are needed for the plot to happen in ways that make sense for them. Because if the characters don’t work, then the plot doesn’t work.
When I’m stuck on a book, one thing that helps me is writing down why I’m stuck. Sometimes I like to make an occasion of this. This time, I was just on the train. (Not that taking the train isn’t an exciting novelty these days.) I wrote down the things I needed to invent or research. Then I wrote down the thing that was bothering me, the thing I knew I’d have to fix sooner or later:
George shouldn’t be involving his untrained relations and he knows that.
Or, as paraphrased for Twitter,
Bringing Milly back makes George looks like a callous dimwit.
And yet Milly has to come back (she’s the narrator!) and George has to be both decent and competent. That’s the whole point of his being in this book at all.
So I kept writing.
He doesn’t have a choice with Amelia. But he needs a damn good reason for Milly to come back… There’s got to be more to it than ‘it might come in useful’.
I went down a couple of dead ends. Something that Amelia tells George that Milly doesn’t know about? Something that brings in a couple of other characters? My brain was working faster than I could write, so it wasn’t coming out as great prose.
Milly is the only person who has seen several key players by sight, so it makes sense to keep her on the spot. But that’s what’s putting her in danger. Sending her home is for her own safety.
I kept writing. Half a page later, it hit me.
Hang on. What if they do get Milly to share – and then don’t act on that? Yes. Milly spills the beans and thinks it’s all cleared up. George arrives, wants to find out more. Milly is the obvious candidate to find out more.
That adjusts the stakes just enough to make everyone’s actions plausible. It makes sense for Milly to come back. It makes sense for George to let her.
A (really encouraging) bonus: I now have a much better idea of at least one of the villains. And the [plot goes here] bit in the antepenultimate (there’s a good word) chapter.
Of course it’s going to demand a whole lot more changes – because most of the 54,000 words I had down were written on the assumption that Milly didn’t share – but I don’t care about that. It makes the whole thing work.
Jack Kerouac famously stuck hundreds of sheets of paper to make one long roll so that he could write On The Road all in one go. This is not an approach that would have worked for me.
As I’ve remarked before, I’ve never been one to start at the beginning of a story, and go on until I get to the end, and then stop. And it seems that over the last year I’ve become even less inclined to do that. At the moment I have six documents open:
a how-to-write-your-book-while-holding-down-a-job workbook (7,886 words since summer 2020)
and two short stories (6,851 words and 631 words respectively)
Not to mention, of course, this post.
My current approach is, every day except Sundays, to open up everything I’m working on and add a sentence to each of them. Depending on where we are in the month and how knackered I am, I might then keep going on whichever one or ones of them take my fancy.
Sometimes I manage whole paragraphs; very rarely, whole scenes. Sometimes I come back from a walk with the next scene in my head. Sometimes I write it. More often it was my morning walk and I have to do my day job, and so I write myself a note at the breakfast table:
Cherry Ripe – the garden at the Beaumont house – resolves the Parry question
crisis: factory brawl, domestic brawl
Ben & Mack could go to Paris?
Which gives me something to start from later in the day.
I do not always add complete sentences. I have a feeling that I used to add complete sentences, but lately I’ve found it easier just to write the words that are in my head and come back to the other ones later.
Blame pandemic brain, or else the fact that I’m doing all my writing on the laptop at the moment and can get away with this sort of approach. Either way, it results in a lot of my writing looking something like this:
Did I feel weird about sleeping in Amelia’s pyjamas in Amelia’s bed? Not remotely. I was far too tired to have scruples about something like that. I slipped between those smooth, white, hotel sheets,
It would have been nice if it had been a dreamless, untroubled, refreshing sleep. I thought I deserved some peace and quiet. I didn’t get it.
All except the alarm, which turned out to be the phone. Automatically, I reached for the receiver.
There’s a lot that isn’t there yet, and what is there isn’t exactly inspired. It leaves me a lot to sort out later, of course. But, weirdly enough, that turns out to be an advantage. When I open up my six (or however many) documents it’s quite handy to find a pair of square brackets that I can fill in, or half a sentence that I suddenly know how finish off. And sometimes I keep on going.
It probably isn’t the most efficient way to write a novel. (Or, in this case, two novels, an anthology, two short stories, a workbook, and a blog post.) I’ve no idea when or if I’m going to finish any of them (except the blog post). But at the moment it seems to be the only way that I’m writing anything at all. And it adds up. And it keeps the pilot light on. So let’s go with it.
That fizzy, smiling-to-yourself, energy that you get when you have a new crush, and you can’t stop thinking about them, and when you’re with them everything is bright and when you’re not with them you’re thinking about the next time you will be with them, or just thinking about them. That.
This is what happened. That post was 12 January. On 18 January I had an idea. A very hypothetical sort of idea, not the sort that demands to be written. Just a ‘if I were writing this story, this is how I’d do it’ sort of idea. A ‘But even assuming it did work, what was meant to happen next?’ kind of idea. I didn’t do anything about it.
On 2 February (Candlemas, and also the fifth anniversary of the publication of Speak Its Name), some time in the morning, I wrote:
Still not feeling like writing anything [fictional], and feeling OK about that. If something marches in demanding to be written, then I expect I’ll write it, but at the moment it just doesn’t feel particularly relevant.
At about eight o’clock in the evening I was mopping the kitchen floor, and found myself thinking quite seriously about an idea I’ve had floating around in my head for years. Another ‘If I were writing this story, this is how I’d do it’ idea, but one that’s been around for quite a lot longer. It’s an intimidating idea: a historical novel; it would take a lot of research, and I have no idea what the plot would be. Still, there I was, thinking about it.
I had the next three days off, and I think this is important. I’d taken those three days off because I was struggling at work, struggling to get anything done, struggling not to snap, struggling not to cry. I hadn’t expected to ‘get anything done’ during them, because, as I say, I wasn’t writing anything. I was intending to nap, and read, and get my head around who I am this year, and maybe unclog the washbasin in the downstairs loo.
Anyway, I was sitting on the floor sometime in the morning of 4 February, writing in my diary or colouring something in or something like that, and I looked up, and there in my line of sight were all the books – no, a lot of the books; I’d need more – that I’d need to read if I were going to write that intimidating historical idea.
And what seemed immediately apparent was that the Ruritanian novel does not like being my main project. It likes to trundle along in the background while I’m working on the serious project.
Well, fine, I thought. That makes sense. And it seemed to be happy for ‘reading all those books’ to count as ‘working on the serious project’. We can do this.
(Mm. So I’m no longer never writing anything again?)
(You know you never were. But you needed to be in that place in order to rest and recover properly from the last one.)
Then something else happened. That evening, the idea from 18 January came back. Boy, did it come back. It brought with it a setting – not an obvious one, but one that made perfect sense given the themes it would have to work with.
It came in with a fluttering retinue of associated ideas. You could do this. You could do that. And this is how you make this work. And this is how you make that work. She’s called Helen. His cousin lost an arm in the War. It kept prodding me for hours after I’d gone to bed.
On 5 February I had things to do, but I got all those points down. On 6 February I started writing. (I also spent a lot of time cursing and refreshing in order to get Speak Its Name onto Smashwords, so it is now available from more ebook stores.) And the ideas keep unspooling, unfurling. I go for a walk and when I come back a whole new scene has written itself in my head. I get a few lines of that down before it evaporates, or I get distracted by another new scene. I look up at the bookcase and realise that of course his name is Julian. But won’t that be confusing? Oh, but then I could slide in Cherry Ripe, and at least one other person would see why. It’s expanding in all directions, and I’d be scared that I couldn’t keep up with it if I didn’t trust that I’ll be able to catch it all later.
I’d forgotten how much fun this stage of a project can be. I know it’ll get more difficult later, when the initial flow dries up and I have to fill in the gaps. I know that whole chunks of this easy wordery will turn out not to fit and have to come out again. Maybe he can’t be called Julian. Maybe I’ll have to ditch the Cherry Ripe allusion. At this stage, I really don’t care. While it lasts, I’ll enjoy it.
I’m very amused by the timing. I’ve known for a while that I’m a seasonal being, but I hadn’t expected a whole new project to come in with a whoosh immediately after the first day of spring. (I’m aware that much of the country is swathed in snow – just frost here, now – but it seems the increasing daylight has more to do with it than the temperature.) I’m amused, too, by the way that making a deliberate decision to step back, to give myself a break, to spend all January watching the skiing and not beat myself up about it, has resulted in this sudden profusion of new words.
Now I’m taking another break. This does not mean that I am any less smitten with this new beautiful project, just that I have a routine and I’m not going to break it. I may be smiling to myself like a teenager, but I’m thirty-five and I have a better idea of how to keep things going. (So we’ll go no more a-roving/So late into the night.) This is, as they say, a marathon and not a sprint. I could show you my browser history from the last couple of days, and you’d see: the songs, the searches, the Wikipedia pages. Even if I’m not putting words on paper (or in pixels, as the case may be) I’m still reading, listening, watching, around the project, chasing clues, following rabbit-holes, finding a thousand things that remind me of the lovely new thing I’m working on.
There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.
And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternativestructures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.
Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.
And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)
I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.
Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.
And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.
Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.
Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.
Something of a departure from the main scope of this series, Inventing Ruritania is, despite the title, about real places. And it’s non-fiction. However, it’s very relevant to the theme. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this for Christmas, and ambled through it a chapter at a time.
I don’t read much academic writing these days, but found this perfectly easy to follow. The main thrust of Vesna Goldsworthy’s argument is that the global understanding of the Balkans has been shaped by Anglophone, primarily British, literature about the region, arguably to the detriment of its standing. The subtitle tells the story: the imperialism of the imagination. Because our primary interaction with the Balkans is in fiction in which the public-school-educated British traveller sorts the country out – or finds the task impossible – we assume that the real thing needs sorting out by us, too. Something that of course rings particularly hollow at the moment, when the public-school-educated British men appear incapable of running their own country.
(I’m paraphrasing severely here. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work – or don’t – on my own Ruritanian effort.)
Goldsworthy’s examples are wide-ranging; she begins with Byron’s account of Greece and progresses through nineteenth century British political interest in Bulgaria before getting to the popular fiction from which she gets her title. The Prisoner of Zenda and Dracula are joined by a whole library’s worth of books that didn’t make it to Penguin Classics. Moving into the twentieth century, we get Buchan and Christie, the ‘comic’ literature of Durrell and Waugh, and the non-fiction of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Some of these books set their action in a fictional country that is explicitly located in the Balkans. Some are set in real-life Balkan countries.
While writers all over the world are prone to appropriating other people’s cultures to make an exotic backdrop (nothing that I have heard about Red, White and Royal Blue, for example, persuades me that I would be able to read it without throwing the book at the wall), it’s true that the dominance of the English language puts what one might now call ‘own voices’ Balkan literature at a disadvantage. It’s true, too, that I know embarrassingly little about the region, and much of what I do know comes from English literature. (For years, all I knew of Romania was from Song For A Tattered Flag.) I’ve learned rather more just from reading this book.
‘Ruritania’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer: as we established a few posts ago, and as Goldsworthy points out herself, going on the evidence that Anthony Hope gives us, the place can’t be any further south than real-life Bohemia. Still, it can’t be denied that when most people say ‘Ruritania’ they mean ‘somewhere in the Balkans’. My own feeling is that many authors, particularly contemporary ones, who use Ruritanian settings, do so to avoid appropriating real-life cultures while still having a government and maybe a monarchy to play with: the number of fictional tiny principalities squeezed in between real-life borders, I would argue, bear me out. Many seem to be borrowing Monaco or Liechtenstein rather than anywhere further south and east. But of course Goldsworthy’s talking about books that explicitly set their action either in named Balkan countries or in countries explicitly stated to be in the Balkan region: in this, the book doesn’t fit quite so well into this blog series after all.
More seriously, I do not have the author’s confidence that ‘the sort of generalised, open condescension [applied to Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians] would appal [the authors] if applied to Somalis or the peoples of Zaire’. In my experience, white people who are racist about other white people are perfectly capable about being racist about black people too.
However, I can’t truthfully say that either of these nitpicks undermine Goldsworthy’s point to any significant extent, and it’s left me with plenty to think about. And a few more books to add to my reading list.
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 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.
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
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.
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)
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 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.