setting

bluebell wood

Write where you know

Part of writing ‘what you know’ is writing ‘where you know’.

You can accomplish a huge amount via distance research, but there is no substitute for visiting the place you want to write about. If a place is too far (out of your wallet), then try to visit somewhere similar. You might miss small local nuances but there are quite a lot of similarities between one beech wood and another, or between one heathland marsh and another. Research may be enough to fill in the gaps, provided you have a sense of what facts you need to check.

On fieldtrips, I don’t make many notes about the places I go. Sometimes I draw little (bad) maps. But mostly I take photos. For me, photos are the best form of notes about places, not just in terms of what I saw when I was there but also in terms of what I felt and smelt and heard. With a little thought and practice, it’s quite easy to figure out how to take photos that will trigger your other senses. Just don’t get caught up in taking pretty holiday snaps. Fieldtrip photos are there as a record. Their purpose is to jog your memory. Pretty pictures are great but they’re a separate thing. Make sure you take both when you’re on a fieldtrip. Also, remember to take both close-up detail and long-shots so you have a sense of the lay out and where things are in relation to each other.

The Bone Dragon is set on the Cambridgeshire fens. Roughly. Give or take. Thereabouts. It’s not set in a particular village or town: the place isn’t even given a name. But it is somewhere that could exist. And it’s clearly roughly where it would be if it did.

I lived in Cambridge for more than four years, studying and working, so I know the town very well. Of course Cambridge isn’t the fens, but it’s geographically very close and it has the Backs and a canal stretch and lots of things I have very vivid memories of that are just the same as out in the fens.

Now, I have never spent much time in the fens themselves, but I have visited various parts of them so I know which aspects of Cambridge are the same as out in the wilds. Also, spent a lot of my teens imposing upon my lovely long-suffering auntie and uncle who live in the bit of Essex right by Cambridge (so on the edge of fen country). The areas are relatively similar, especially when you get out into the wetter, wilder places – which I did, since I’ve always loved walking… and exploring every possible path. (What a lovely sewage works I discovered on one such foray!)

When I was writing The Bone Dragon and needed some fresh inspiration, but didn’t have a lot of time, there were two forests nearby with marshy heathland that I could squelch about in. So between my memories of Cambridge, my memories of the Essex wilds near the fens, trips to the fens themselves, and heathland squelchings, I felt I could conjure the ‘where’ of The Bone Dragon into being in my study any time I needed. To what extent I succeeded, I invite you to see for yourself by reading my book (subliminal message: buy my book! buy my book!).

So when I say ‘write where you know’, I don’t mean you can only write about the place you live (or places you’ve lived), but think carefully about whether you would write better if you set your story somewhere you know or somewhere like a place you know. If you’ve no real life experience of a similar place, it will be very hard to build a realistic sense just from research. You probably won’t be able to say very much about the place or you’ll risk straining the reader’s credulity if it’s somewhere they know or like somewhere they know. The tricky thing is cities: many are far more different than first thought would suggest.

If the ‘where’ of your story doesn’t matter very much, it’s easy to write believably so long as you don’t go into much detail. But it’s a pity to lose the depth that setting can bring to a story. If you’ve got believable characters walking around in a grey, blurry world, readers aren’t going to engage as much. And it entirely rules out the possibility of establishing a setting that is almost a character in its own right – something that’s important to me as a writer.

So when you’re starting out with a new idea have a think. Where do you know? Chances are there are a lot of wheres you could write about. Why not pick one of them, or somewhere similar, rather a place/type of place you have no lived experience of at all?

There’s always the temptation to just invent your where, as I did with The Bone Dragon. And that’s fine, but your where has to be plausible for its rough, give-or-take, hereabouts setting. The where of The Bone Dragon may exist only in my head, but if I put a lot of cacti in it I’d have a problem even so. As it is, I couldn’t take you to the specific places Evie and the Dragon visit at night, but I could take you to lots of places that would do just as well. And knowing that gives me a different sense, when I’m in the World of the Book, of actually being in a real place: a place I can step into (if only in my head) and look around for inspiration. It’s a place I can explore whenever I want to because in my head there is a full three-dimensional fenland village that supplies all the sensory input I could possibly need without my having to build it in afresh every time I sit down at my computer.

My new book is set in Cambridge, but down the line there will be books set in a beech wood and books set in a version of rural Italy and books set in London… I have a lot of wheres to draw on. If you think about it, you’ll probably find that you do too.

 

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My writing process meme

Big, big thanks to Jade Ngengi for tagging me for the MEME: you can read her post from last week here.

 

What am I working on?

New Book (aka HoW) is a YA literary contemporary novel as opposed to a psychological thriller, though I will be returning to that territory in future books… along with historical fiction and fantasy.

New Book goes into partial-manuscript submission today, so I’m really hoping it finds a happy home to provide some security as I finish it. In any case, potential disasters aside, I’m hoping to have a full manuscript in May or June. Which means I need to get my skates on!

To be fair, I’m feeling fairly calm about the rest of the draft. The start of the book was slow and dreadful, as it so often is for me – and I was fully expecting this to be more so than normal for various Reasons, not least how long this book has been in the works. I started working on the first incarnation of this story when I was 13. You’ll be relieved to hear that it’s changed substantially since then. I’ve written several novel-length versions over the years, but I decided to set these aside and start from scratch. I know so much more now as writer. I think I can finally tell this story as it should be told.

It’ll be weird to have a definitive version, but I’m looking forward to having it out of my head after all this time. I wonder what will creep into the void it will leave?

As for the book itself, it’s set in Cambridge and focuses on the University. Cambridge is one of my favourite places on earth. I did my first two degrees there and also worked as a researcher in a super-exciting, though short-lived, cutting-edge multi-disciplinary department.

Cambridge is beautiful in the way that all the best fairytales are: full of wonder, magic, and cruelty. It’s for everyone to visit, but as a place to live – and especially to study – it really is not for everyone. Even if you had the chance, you might not be willing to give up what you have to in order to obtain what Cambridge can give you. Most of us don’t know we’re making a trade until it’s done – and afterwards it isn’t possible to imagine going back and choosing otherwise. But ultimately Cambridge is the place where I first fell in love and where I finally had the scope to be who I was.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is such a hard question. I guess part of the answer is that I almost always write across genre boundaries. This is becoming progressively more common – and is something that YA is brilliant at accommodating, so a great category for me to publish in – but it’s still far from the norm.

I don’t do this on purpose. For a start, it makes books harder to market and what author wants that? It just seems to be how my brain works. I’m interested in how things intersect and interact at all levels, from the characters to the themes, and that spills over into the way my work tends to blur genre boundaries.

As an academic, one of my areas of interest in Literature is the intersection of fact and fiction. But I also have degrees in Psychology and Education, plus years of professional experience working as a consultant in the theatre and human rights fields, so diversity of interests is one of my ‘hallmarks’ as a person. The world is too big and amazing to stick to just one thing, even in a single book. The whole point of imagination is not to be stuck with the mundane limits of the real world: why would I want to bottle myself into just one category of daydreaming for my books?

The other part of the answer is that a lot of my work reflects my interest in human rights and the ethical issues attendant in writing fiction. I believe that difficult subjects can (and often should) be rendered in harrowing terms, but I’m doubtful that they ever need be graphic, especially if the subject matter concerns sexual violence and exploitation.

I also think we need to be very careful, as writers, to do our homework properly when we write about ‘real’ events in real locations that are happening at the present time. This is a great subject for fiction, but if you’re going to tackle it you first need to be prepared to do what it takes to know what you’re talking about. Part of this is ensuring that you don’t inadvertently do harm.

For instance, I think that writers who write about torture should be wary of lending weight to common misconceptions, especially the popular but inaccurate belief that torture produces reliable information that, under some circumstances, can mean that torture is ‘the lesser of two evils’. The research shows that information obtained under torture is often inaccurate and unreliable to the point where it may do more harm than good in a crisis. If we tell our readers (implicitly or otherwise) that we’re reflecting reality, then we should do it accurately, especially when this gives us opportunities to do good as opposed to harm: if we choose to write about torture happening in a real life context at the present time, we should also take an ethical stance in showing that not only should we not torture because it’s a terrible evil but because it is often purposeless and counter-productive. I’ve written about this at length over on Oh, The Books! in relation to Wein’s Code Name Verity, which I think does a really good job in this regard.

There are lots of other related ways that I think writers should take care. After all, taking care doesn’t mean being limited. But if you’re going to write about real events in real places happening in the here and now, there’s no excuse for not knowing the facts before you decide if you want to follow them or go where your imagination takes you.

 

Why do I write what I do?

See above! I suppose the extended answer is that I try to write about the worries and dreams that fill my head but that I don’t see reflected in the pages of existing books. I don’t try to be unique – this is almost always disastrous: the source of unmitigatedly awful and arrogant work. Instead, I try to recognise how I am already unique. For instance, the unusual combination of my areas interest and professional expertise mean certain common narratives jump out at me as suspect.

In The Bone Dragon, I challenge the idea that it is always a psychologically-healthy thing for victims of violent crimes to speak in detail about their experiences. Evie does give a report to the police, but she chooses never to discuss her past in the same level of detail with her friends, parents, teachers or even counsellors. For many people, ‘speaking out’ is extremely helpful and I’m not trying to dissuade people from doing it when they think they will benefit. But some people, like Evie, recognise that they don’t need or want to do this: it’s not helpful to them to ‘talk it out’ by rehashing all the horrid details. Making a report to the police is harrowing but Evie chooses to do it because she recognises that she has a responsibility to try to protect others. But, this responsibility fulfilled, she makes the choices that best protects her and her recovery. And, for Evie, that is to remain silent about the things she will never be able to face if they’re put into words.

Some things should never be said. Not out loud in clear, simple words. You talk around them. You leave gaps and blanks. You use other words and talk in curves and arcs for the worst things because you need to keep them like mist. Words are dangerous. Like a spell, if you name the mist, call out all of the words that describe it sharp and clear, you turn it solid, into something that no one should ever hold in their hands. Better that it stays like water, slipping between yours fingers.

At the moment we’re surrounded by calls for victims to ‘speak out’, not just to the police but in general. While it is very important that victims do speak the police, we should be honest about how traumatic this is for the vast majority of people. We should be saying ‘Do it even though it’s going to be hard and awful: you’ll feel wretched afterwards, but you’ll also feel like you were strong enough to do the right thing.’ We should also tell people to  ‘Speak out if you want to: but take a moment to think about it first. There should be no pressure to share anything with anyone but the police unless you think it’s going to help you.’

That’s the truth of the situation, or at least my understanding of it. But that is NOT the current popular narrative. The Bone Dragon isn’t about ‘correcting’ the current view. But it is about putting a more nuanced, complex version of the truth out there. When I see lies or part-truths in popular narratives (and by narratives I’m not just talking about fiction), I want to do my part in challenging them – but not by jumping up and down and saying ‘Wrong! You’re wrong, wrong, wrong!’ (well, sometimes I feel like this but I try not to do it as it never gets anyone anywhere). Instead I try to say ‘Here’s the complex question behind this thing you’re currently being told is a simple statement of fact: now go away and figure out your own answer.’


How does my writing process work?

I’m a planner. If I don’t have almost every detail of a book planned out in advance, I don’t know it well enough to write it properly. I like being able to focus on language, not just at the sentence-level but at a structural level: it’s hard to do that when you’re also figuring out the plot as you go. Planning means I can focus on making the plot more interesting at a micro-level during writing, ‘opening the gap’ as Robert McKee calls it, by trying to weave little surprises into each scene: the thing that drives to the heart of a character or a relationship by being a ‘truer’ version of what the reader is expecting.

As I mentioned above, the start of a book is often grinding and slow. Well, the first page is usually lovely fun then I go back the next day and tear my hair out over it. Then follows about 15,000 words that are pure grind. I write and rewrite, and edit and re-edit my first few pages at least once a day. And then suddenly the language-structure of the book starts to take shape: I have enough material to know how to tell the story on the page. After that, if I can’t write more than 2500-3000 words per day, even on a not-so-good one, then something is wrong with the plan I’ve made. Assuming everything’s going OK, after the halfway mark, things speed up even further and I can expect to write at least 3000-4500 words a day. During the last quarter of the book I usually write over 4500 words per day, sometimes as many as 8-9000.

Of course, like most writers, I can’t write all day every day: not only does other work intrude (aka ‘paying the bills on time’) but so does life. I have yet to discover a magical creature willing to do my laundry or shopping or general household stuff and junk. And then there’s the little matter of all the people I love who I want to talk to and email and visit. Otherwise I would hole up in my attic study and not emerge for about a month. I did that as a teenager when I was learning how to write full-length novels: after about 25 days I’d emerge even more crazy than normal but with a book. Maybe not a publishable book, but a book all the same. And that was a great place to start. It gave me the practice needed to build up my stamina for the effort of trying to write 300 pages that aren’t just halfway decent but, hopefully, worth publishing.

 

Tag Lauren James, fellow member of Claire’s Coven (i.e. represented by the brilliant Claire Wilson of the RCW Literary Agency).

Lauren James is a Physics and Chemistry student and YA writer. She writes about romance and time travel and reads everything she can get her hands on. Her novel The Red Earth Rolls is being published by Walker in 2015. She blogs at http://southfarthing.tumblr.com.

 

This enchantment of ice and crystal

frosted rose

In honour of last week’s Dragon-worthy frost, some photos that made me think of a particular scene from the book.

frosted fens

… the grass is so thickly frosted, every blade sharp-coated with ice…

frosted acer

The skeleton of the tree glows in the frozen night air as if displaying its soul to the heavens.

frosted acer leaves

The acer is a marvel of white over red.

frosted flowers

… diamond-flashes catch off the newly strange plants in the beds …

frosted seed pods

Now everything is shaded in grey and silver and white.

frosted ivy

Everything solid has turned to crystal.

 

leaves against the sun

The Next Big Thing

The lovely Katy Darby has just tagged me for the Next Big Thing meme: a questionnaire designed to get writers talking about their next book. Ideally, each writer tags five others but I seem to have a knack for tagging people who’ve done it and those who don’t have blogs. Go me!

Anyway, here’re my answers. (BTW, I’m cross-posting on both blogs because I ended up talking a lot about The Bone Dragon.)

 

What is the working title of your next book?

MoB. While I’m still drafting I only ever refer to a book by the initials of the working title. Sharing the title sets it in stone for me so, as it’s hard to be sure a title’s right until the book is done, I try to keep it to myself until I’m fairly confident I won’t have to change it.

I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to share a work in progress; for me, a big part of the joy of being a writer, and not a performer, is that I can keep my work secret until I’m ready to hear what other people think. If I start sharing stuff too soon, I get caught up in other people’s ideas and start doubting my own. I need to have a draft that’s close enough to the book in my head that I can use feedback effectively before I go about inviting it by sharing information. So, MoB it is for now. And, no, it’s not about men in dark suits or aliens. Or mobsters. Or flash mob dance crews. I defy you to guess the title… But would love to see your best shot.

 

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In The Bone Dragon, I feel that I started a conversation about a series of themes that are really important to me as a writer. MoB is the continuation of that conversation, without being a sequel. The plot developed from the idea for the ‘hook’, which led me to a key moment in the climax. From there, I used the idea of continuing the conversation from The Bone Dragon to help me work out the story of how and why the ‘hook’ leads to the climax – and vice versa, since the story isn’t as linear as it seems. The fun bit is that this is the opposite of how The Bone Dragon works: TBD is completely linear, only it’s not clear that that’s the case until you’ve reached the very end of the book.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Like The Bone Dragon, MoB is a YA psychological thriller that will hopefully appeal to anyone over 16.

 

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a really tough question for me. One of the weirder bits of being as dyslexic and dyspraxic as I am is that I find it hard to remember and, therefore, to recognise faces. When I’m having a ‘dyslexic day’ (anyone who is dyslexic will tell you that a person’s level of ‘dyslexic-ness’ shifts from day to day – it’s one of the key things about dyslexia that research has yet to explain), I even struggle to recognise close friends and members of my own family. Mostly I recognise people by their context, their voice and, critically, their hair. This has a huge impact on my aesthetic. I rarely take photos of people and, when I do, I only take ‘snaps’. I just don’t have any sort of an eye for faces in their entirety. This is probably why I feel very strongly about letting readers ‘see’ what they want when it comes to my characters. I tend to provide a bare minimum (and often not even that) in relation to physical descriptions of people.

The flip side is that my visual aesthetic is overwhelmingly taken up with settings and objects. I always give a huge amount of detail on these things because I ‘see’ these things with crystal clear focus – almost as a way of making up for the fuzziness of the people. I love taking photos of landscapes and plants. My best photos are to do with angle, texture and detail, and that’s true in my writing as well. That, in a nutshell, is my visual aesthetic.

The bottom-line here is that I’m not sure I *can* answer this question. I’m also not sure I want to. If I did, I wouldn’t give photos, rather I’d talk about what various actors could bring to the parts in terms of evoking the key emotional aspects of the characters. For instance, the main character needs to be thin (it’s important to the plot): she also needs to look like someone who has attractive features but is almost trying to make herself unattractive, so the actor couldn’t be straight-forwardly pretty. She needs to come across as bordering on sullen, but with a degree of vulnerability that indicates that this is more than just ‘teenage sulks’. At the same time, she can’t seem fragile: she’s prickly on the outside and angrily defensive on the inside… Which makes her sound so lovable. But, like in The Bone Dragon, it doesn’t really matter whether readers like the protagonist per se. They just have to identify with the emotions that fuel her behaviour.

 

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

MoB is to a ghost story what The Bone Dragon is to a fantasy story about dragons. It starts with a girl in a blue coat vanishing into an autumn wood.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Represented by my amazing, wonderful, fantastic, brilliant agent, Claire Wilson, at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s not finished yet but I hope to have the draft done by the end of January. I know exactly what’s going to happen every step of the way, so it’s just about finding the right ideas at the sentence level. I hope it won’t be a long edit: it feels like it won’t be, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. I’ve only been working on the idea since about March-April so it’ll be my shortest idea-to-book conversion ever. But I’ve got a good feeling about it, like I had with The Bone Dragon, so hopefully…

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh gawd. I always find these questions so hard. It seems so presumptuous to compare to my work to the books I dream about seeing mine sit beside. Um… I guess the best answer looks back to what I said earlier: MoB is the continuation of a conversation I started with The Bone Dragon. If really pushed, I guess MoB is The Go-Between meets The Lovely Bones. Sort of.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

When I first had the idea, I knew this was a book I wanted to write… but the inspiration that made it my most urgent project came from being signed by my wonderful agent, Claire. Out of all the books I wanted to write, this seemed the most natural progression from The Bone Dragon. I would love for Claire to enjoy the book and be excited to represent it. It’s the best way I can think of to say thank you for the first miraculous ‘yes’ that led to my finally being published…

… which, in turn, involved another critical ‘yes’. I absolutely love working with the team at Faber: it would be great to see if that relationship could continue and I think they might like MoB… but we’ll see.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The protagonist is 16 going on 17, so the book explores some territory that’s touched on in The Bone Dragon but remains between the lines. The same aesthetic principles apply in terms of how the darker subject matter is tackled, but the conversation goes further. The protagonist is at a different point in her life with different things at stake so I have a very different array of opportunities to explore what damage means for someone who is on the verge of a whole series of life-defining choices – about A-levels, university, romantic relationships, where she lives, how she lives, who she’s going to be as an adult… In MoB, impending adulthood means that the main character doesn’t have much time to ‘get her act together’ if she is going to avoid mucking up her future.

Those are the things about MoB that are most exciting for me, as the writer. For the reader, there’s a much more obvious mystery to be solved in MoB that will hopefully sustain the book in a more fluid way than in The Bone Dragon. But the answers to that mystery will (hopefully) lead readers somewhere they’re not expecting at all.

 

So… three guesses what MoB stands for. Go on. Give it a shot. It’s cold and dreary and dark. Laughing will make it better. (So will chocolate, but that’s your own affair.)

Return to the fens

lowering skies through the trees

I know it will be one of those cold, clear nights. Crystalline.

 

foxglove frosted

Beneath, a plant with wide, awkward leaves – probably a weed – looks like folds of lace over silk.

 

budleia in the snow

…hinting only faintly of mauve beneath the silver and white where, earlier today, they were imperial purple: a wine-dark colour thick and heavy enough to drown in.

 

winter trees

The bare tree branches spike upwards like long black thorns. The clouds rip and tear themselves ragged as they force themselves on: rank upon rank of tattered monsters hunting each other across the sky.

Setting: the Cambridge fens

snowy path

as the light fails

The Cambridge fenlands are treacherous and beautiful…

trees growing out of the water

growing out of the water

Magical and dangerous in equal parts, especially in winter.

frozen pond in the snow

waterways

The boundaries between land and water dissolve.

stream with snowy banks

where land and water meet

Even in the snow and frost, the fens are alive with colour.

 

Frosty leaves

folds of lace over silk

 
This is the world that Evie ventures out into at night.
 
splitered frozen pond

treacherous ground