Searching For Innocent Mentors

One thing I’ve forgotten since I stopped writing novels, is the amount of time it takes.

Dingbat - a young woman reading a book
Still reading

I have the notes from when I wrote SHADOWBOX. I have the timetable, and the blog posts, which show that it took me three months to get the word-count onto paper.

But ahead of that, there were months of preparation.

I even found a surprise amount of information in an unexpected source, an exhibition in the British Museum on the early Victorian explorers Dodwell & Pomardi, which I only went to because there was time to spare before the exhibition I’d gone to see let me in (timed ticket, popular exhibition – IIRC it was something about Tutankhamun, #fangirl).

There’s the visit to Bristol City Museum to see first hand the documents from Belzoni’s travelling exhibitions, in the flesh, with a curator talking us through the historical background. On the same trip, a visit to the Georgian House Museum to have a look at how a prosperous house of the early 1800s would look.

Maps, maps, maps. The Maps I Used in 1832.

Time travel.

All those blog posts I wrote as part of the launch timing for SHADOWBOX, keeping myself motivated and counting down to publication day, enjoying the process of sharing my research and documenting my work.

With hindsight, today, writing the above, I see a little about how I work.

I haven’t done anywhere near as much research and planning with the Petticoat Katie novels. I didn’t have to, as I was writing a sort of steampunk fantasy and all I had to do was remove some of the 20th – and 21st – century’s less obliging aspects.

So the idea that I have to get on and write something, especially something ambitious like The Gothic Heart Attack Novel I’ve been musing over for ages, is really not how I do this.

THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN was years in the planning, plotting, characterisation and completion. Maybe fifteen years, all told, with huge gaps in between when I wasn’t writing. Focused instead on making a living, having a life, my mind on a career in an office job because that was where the money was, my home life a balance of spouse and parents.

So now I have no job and a pandemic stash of loo roll and pasta, why do I expect my writing habits to change?

It will take some time before I can consider writing fast again.

The Gothic Heart Attack Novel will take more years before I have a structure, and my imagination is adding layers of texture to the story as time goes by. This is a rich textured work, not a slim here-and-now setting. It’s as deep as SHADOWBOX – deeper, in fact, as I have to build a coherent lifecycle and answer many questions about how the non-human characters live.

These facts may or may not go into the final story. They may be background notes which are never added, but add colour to how I see the non-human folk.

One thing I do need is to focus on one story at a time. The Gothic Heart Attack Novel will filter through the mind as I write, but I have to practise writing, and writing novels, to get my hand in.

One of the other problems I have with The Gothic Heart Attack Novel is understanding where in history to pitch it. How long a timescale do I have to cover in order to tell the story I want?

My head is lining it up to be like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; I have to remember the timescale of that. And it took the author (Susanna Clarke) 12 years to get that into print, and it’s a huge book.

Lanark, much as I hated it, was also a labour of years – decades, even.

I don’t have to write fast. I’m not writing category romance, or a film tie-in SF. The books I’m reading at the moment – The Amtrak Wars series, by Patrick Tilley – are just about the only novels he’s published, in the mid-1980s, and he’s still alive. They’re filled with rich background and texture and characters. The impact of all that is impressive.

So… I have to take my time. I don’t do my best work by throwing words on a page like a hangry pizza-maker. It’s a cathedral, a tapestry, a magnum opus.

I’ll have to frame the work for each novel in terms of the timescale I took for SHADOWBOX, and work back. I can’t think this will be quick. That way leads to frustration and shoddy work.

If I feel the clock ticking, I can try writing short stories in the new universe, which will add to the colour of The Gothic Heart Attack Novel when it happens. I have to accept that my output isn’t going to be a hundred novels in a given genre, or many.

I’m trying to build Chartres cathedral, not the workers’ accommodation.

So… another thing I can do is follow writers who have done this before me. While I may take advice from more prolific writers, who write in category fiction or genre, I should also be looking at the writers who produce fewer works with greater depth.

I have to build up a cadre of influencers, a corps of innocent mentors.

I have to look for guidance from writers who produce the sort of work I want to make myself.

This may involve a lot more reading. I’ve made a start.

Painting by Norman Rockwell, "The Bookworm" - man in a raincoat nose-deep in a book
The bookworm in his natural habitat

And now, this week’s links, all concerning small points of world-building importance, whether or not those facts make it into the finished story:

The cost of making a pair of hand-knitted silk stockings of the sort my older characters in SHADOWBOX would remember wearing – Twitter thread, so many time-absorbing rabbit-holes to go down.

Bread and how it was made – the first in a series of posts about the sheer amount of hard work required to produce the daily basics, which we so often forget about when writing historical fiction or fantasy.

Another example:

(Click for a really fascinating thread)
Published in: on June 20, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Searching For Innocent Mentors  
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