In the Wear Valley of County Durham, there is a town called Bishop Auckland, and Bishop Auckland has a bridge. A one-time viaduct, it bore the weight of rail traffic emanating from the coal and ore producing mines of the upper valley. Now it is a road bridge. The mines are gone, but the isolated communities that fed them with labour remain; villages without hearts, fossils of an extinct culture slowly re-establishing themselves as satellites to the cities. It is this society, or an aspect of it, which forms the backcloth for ‘A Place that was Ours’.
The bridge was my start point for ‘A Place that was Ours’. In fact, my working title for the first chapter was ‘The Bridge’. The whole novel is a challenge to me and my philosophy that a writer, in composing a book should avoid planning as much as possible.
Let me explain. This philosophy is not new. I am not a planner. In the past, though, I have always had a basic idea of how my plot would run, and the genre (how I hate that word) into which it should fit. I retained two luxuries; I could trash the whole thing if it did not ‘work’, and I could ‘mess around’ with the completed project – introduce flashbacks, alter characters, eliminate inconsistencies, and so on. And then, of course, I had the ability to edit; all before I offered the result as a completed book. In my view, this is an easy way out and there are dangers implied.
I have a hard drive full of discontinued first chapters that could have been finished works, had I committed myself to them. I have a book I completed years ago, so full of alterations, superimposed characters and corrections the original vision I had is lost, and so, by implication, is the book.
Not this time, not this book. All the fun, all the adventure is back. My characters are taking me where they want to go, not where I elect to put them. I am posting each chapter as I write it. There is no fully honed work waiting in the wings, to be transcribed episode by episode. Chapter Five at the moment is only two paragraphs long.
I had – or have – no basic idea to work from. I started with a bridge, the bridge depicted above. That was the only solid element to work from. I had no characters: two kids I saw walking up the road past my house became Chas and Sue, the rest of the dramatis personae have gathered around them naturally as friends and family will do. A first trap, because writing so freehandedly invites a huge cast. I am tempted to add someone new each time a situation seems to require it, whereas any theatre producer will tell me to do the reverse, to re-use an existing character because the audience, or reader, will accept them more easily.
Timeline, surprisingly, is the most difficult aspect so far, in a couple of ways. Having established that Chas is my hero/antihero I may not need to know what ultimately happens to him, but I do have to place the completed work within a timeframe. It needs balance. Ten chapters on Chas’s last year at school (don’t worry, there won’t be) are far too much if the plot is likely to span twenty years, yet I cannot miss out the experiences of that year if they shape his character and dictate later events. And within that I need pace and rhythm, or the story to becomes absolutely linear – diary mode, with no diversions or back stories.
I have to be wary that awful word ‘genre’ does not tag the piece as a ‘North Country’ novel, with all that implies. The backcloth I describe above generates an image for some, a label I am anxious to avoid. Casterley is NOT Bishop Auckland, any more than Chas is me, or Sue’s character relates to someone I have known. The action of this book could as easily take place almost anywhere – in London, for example, because the greater part of London is a bloated version of Casterley, and Chas and Sue could as easily be Cockneys. The book would contain more violence and less generosity of spirit, but it would work.
All right – BORING! Let’s finish this off now, and go for tea.
What will happen to Chas, or Sue? I don’t know. I can only tell you it will make a book, and I hope it will be a good book. That’s what is so exciting for me. I can write a life that is subject to the same vicissitudes of fortune as your life, or mine. Along came a bus? What was that line from a lyric of John Lennon’s? ‘Life is something that happens to you while you are busy making other plans’.
That’s it! Mad! No plans! Another episode early in the New Year.
Happy New Year, everybody!