First steps on the journey – 1842

It seems like an age hence that I was using up spare leave from the Day Job to swan around Georgian England. April, in fact, and the weather was balmy – one day we had rain, and when I was in London it was sunny.Dodwell & Pomardi party on the Peleponnese. No, I'm just making this up...

The museum visits – Belzoni’s sketches of Seti I’s tomb, the drawings of Dodwell and Pomardi – are still fresh in my mind. I can picture the roads they walked on. I see their own depictions of their clothing. Prosperous men, making a slash in the world’s perception.

Of the houses from that time, I saw the Georgian House in Bristol, and was reminded of the tenement flats of Turin and Glasgow, large rooms with tiny fireplaces and high ceilings.

Ornate plasterwork on the cornices. Chinese or Japanese fabrics on screens, on lacquerwork furniture, on fine bone china.

Silk, embroidered, the work of tiny hands, a nation’s wealth in fabric sheer against lined paper walls and painted wooden balustrades.

Homes built on slavery and trade of other sorts.

Small piano-type instruments, keys of ivory not yet scarce; books the size of a card-table spread open at hand-painted birds of paradise from the Indies. Animal products from far-off lands where the people are different from us.

Wigs to be powdered, pearls to be worn by the maid before the lady of the house entertains.


The wealth of merchants and the asceticism of Methodists, the freshness of plantation sugar and the new industrial works roaring beside canals dug by Irishmen on government subsidy through newly-enclosed land.

Books, the rare stories treasured, the poetry mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know.

The loss of the New World still stinging.

Since then, I’ve read a little of the period’s surviving literature – Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield – and boned up on history. I’ve developed a feel for the society on the cusp of a new age: leaving behind the excesses of the Georgian period and setting forth on the fecund part of Victoria’s reign. A transition from one form of the British Empire to another. A rise in mercantile power, in global reach, in ebullient confidence.

A formative part of the national psyche, in fact.

I’ve explored modern perceptions of the period too, between the pages of Queen Victoria’s Book Of Spells and Mysteries Of The Diogenes Club, and social history such as the Chartists, to bolster my earlier reading of Robert Louis Stevenson and The Coral Island and The Water Babies and a bundle of other books that all squidge together in the memory. I know I’ve missed out a lot. That will come, as it’s needed.

In doing so, I’ve built up a picture – a landscape not unlike those sketched by Dodwell and Pomardi. A schema, similar to that Belzoni made of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs for touring Europe, raising funds for his next expedition.

I’ve created a background against which a story can take place.

This is the world of the young Louis Beauregard.

And he has just begun to stride across it, heading for his destiny.

How I Write A Novel

This is how I write a novel:Hard at work writing the latest novel, honest.

  1. I write out a storyboard, dividing the story up into scenes. The notes that go in here describe things like time of day, year of events, main characters taking part, POV, action, and what this scene does in the context of the story. Other notes are added as time goes by. Other scenes are added too.
  2. I write the story scene by scene. Sometimes it becomes obvious that scenes are in the wrong place, or don’t move the story on, but if I’m in the middle of writing that scene I finish it before I move on to another. Every scene is spellchecked when it’s typed up, and I correct the grammar.*
  3. When I’ve finished writing the storyboard scenes I take the whole story and shuffle the scenes so the structure makes a little more sense.

That’s my first draft.

No-one sees it.

It is full of scrappy bits, bad writing, cliches, notes to myself and other tosh.

But it is the first draft of a story, complete with beginning, middle and end, and my characters have travelled through it.

Nobody else will, except me.

And because I’ve had my nose pressed up against the window of the story, so to speak, I take a step back and do some basic tidying up.

  • I highlight every word that ends in -ly.
  • I highlight every ‘could’ and ‘thought’ and ‘should’ and ‘ought’.
  • I highlight other words which, on a full read-through, seem to pop up more often than I’d like. (In The Bead Merchant, that word is “slippers”, BTW).
  • I remove or replace all those words which irritate me.

I think of it like an artist adding shadows to an image.

This is where I start the next stage. I fill in the gaps, often writing whole new scenes from scratch or deleting others entirely.

I ask myself a lot of questions.

  • Where is the story a bit rubbish?
  • Where did I write a scrappy outline because I was pushed for time and had too much story left to write?
  • Where did I write in cliches because I couldn’t think of any other way to say the damn thing and I had to get it out of my head and onto paper before I could continue with the bits I wanted to write?
  • Which characters are boring? Why? Can they be rescued? Will anyone like them? Is it important or are they there simply to provide information or move the story along?
  • Is this event accurate or reasonable? Is it silly?

More questions.

More writing.

I polish the draft with these, and then it goes to my first readers. (I’m fortunate to have first readers who have complementary skills – one tells me where my structure is flabby/confusing/unconventional, and the other tells me where my storytelling is poor/disappointing/lacking.)

While I wait for them to give me feedback, I research the next story or read some books or write a few short stories or do some more editing or start writing the next story.

When the feedback arrives, I wince, and agree with most of it, and get on with the rewrite, before repeating the process, until between us we think it’s the best it can be.

Then it’s done.

* Eats, shoots, and leaves, right?

Published in: on March 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm  Comments Off on How I Write A Novel  
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