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Category: Writing

The Story Behind the Story

Reconquista was published in Spring 2016 and launched at the Clapham Book Festival ( see Sunshine and Flamenco Guitar ). But the writing of it began many, many years before, when the god-son of the author, a thirteen year-old named Luke, first came to visit Jerez de la Frontera.

Luke liked numbers and mathematics, but also history and his god-mother thought about how to engage him with the places in the ancient town and the events that had happened there long ago. So she began to write a story which was then called ‘On the Frontier‘, beginning with the siege of Jerez by King Alfonso X in 1264.

It’s main character, as readers of Reconquista will know, was Nathan, a fourteen year old ( which was, at the time, what Luke wanted to be ). He had an older cousin named Rebecca who lived with Nathan and his father . Rebecca is the name of Luke’s younger sister.

Just to be fair to the author’s other god-son, she included a character called Thomas of Whelmstone, an English doctor who had come to Jerez with the King so as to learn to be a surgeon. The real Thomas was then studying at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London to be a surgeon and he came from a place in Devon named Whelmstone Barton. His brother is named Ben.  Of course, there is a character named Ben Isaacs in the book, although he isn’t related to the Thomas of Whelmstone character and, in fact is nothing like the real Thomas’s brother.

So the story began and the author sent the first two chapters to Luke, her god-son.  He had soon read them and wanted more, which was when his god-mother realised that she had better work out just what was going to happen in the story, from the beginning right through to the end. She realised that she was actually writing a novel. The rest of the story was eventually sent to Luke, chapter by chapter.

Years passed.

The writer wrote other books, like her short story collection The Village. She set up The Story Bazaar web-site and social media sites. But the manuscript of Luke’s story was always at the back of her mind. Then in 2015 she decided to get it out and look at it again.  Luke was now a young man, he was working in the accounts department of a charity in the Midlands and he had long since forgotten Nathan and Rebecca, Atta and Senor Thomas.

On the Frontier‘ wasn’t anywhere near ready for the wide world. It had to be thoroughly edited and much of it was re-written, to put much more emphasis upon the three young protagonists. The title was changed ( the author asked readers of her web-site to nominate their favourite, see Vote for your Favourite Title ) and the new book produced. Then Reconquista was published, with a dedication just inside its frontispiece to Luke, Rebecca, Thomas and Ben.

The author will be talking about the story behind the story and reading from Reconquista in the Storytelling tent at Crystal Palace Overgound Festival on 17th June at Crystal Palace Park. Come along and listen! It’s FREE!

The First Draft

Relief, that’s the first reaction.typewriter-584696_1280

Then a touch of astonishment that it’s finally done. You’ve been working on the first draft, making those marks on the blank page or screen for months and now it finally reaches its end. Yes, all four hundred pages of it.

This is swiftly followed by the realisation of just how much work there is still to do.  For, however hard it has been to write your first draft, it is only the beginning. Now you have to go back to the actual beginning and start again, re-reading and re-writing.

In some ways the first draft is the most difficult, because the words you are putting on the page or screen are new. There will be times when the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or anywhere exciting or interesting. Even with a plot sketched out and, in my case, having a synopsis of each chapter’s action, one can write oneself into an impossible place. So, late in my draft, I found one of my protagonists was, literally, cornered and there was no plausible way to get him out of the situation he was in. I had no alternative but to discard most of that chapter, to re-write it and aspects of earlier chapters which led up to it.

But this is what the first draft is about, at least for me. It means getting a consistent, believable and engaging story on the page, including characters who the reader will care about and underlying themes which register without overburdening the story. Developing those characters into three dimensions and  bringing themes out further, without banging the reader over the head with them, is what later drafts are for. Capturing the places and times, the subtleties of action and reaction in perfect prose (not that mine ever is), all this can take place once the first draft is done.

I’m sure other, more experienced and better authors are more skilled and simply more efficient than I am and it probably doesn’t take them as long, because they do some of these things as they go along, but they too will create the first draft.

Yet in other ways the first draft is easy.  One doesn’t have to care too much about the wordsmithing, this can always be addressed later. Reaching one’s daily or weekly writing targets is much easier, as you don’t have to concentrate on the detail, just getting the words down. Several successful writers of my acquaintance have daily/weekly word targets, but acknowledge that these are more easily met during the first draft.

Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing and was pleased to find him advising new writers to set themselves writing targets, 1,000 words a day to begin with, something I had used to advise many years ago when I, briefly, taught creative writing. And, in the first draft, a goodly proportion of those 1,000 words might be clichés, but hey, they’re words so they count.

So what’s next? Well, I tend to step back for a short while, then return to the first draft and read it through all at once, trying to take an over view on structure, character and theme. Do I actually have that ‘consistent, believable and engaging story on the page’? What changes do I need to make to ensure that it is so?

And then? Well, that’s when the hard work really begins……

Hawk

Has a strange co-incidence ever happened to you? Something which made you feel a bit uncertain.

That happened to me recently. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you will have read my piece about hunting with hawks, called Hunting with Birds. I’m interested in that right now because the sequel to ‘Reconquista‘ includes a new character who is a falconer. So I have to learn about hawks.

Well, I was in Spain and I happened to be writing a chapter in which two of my main characters are up in the Sierra El Endrinal. They take shelter on a mountain ledge which, they discover, is also home to a pair of birds of prey. It was a lovely sunny day, with the temperature in the twenties so I went out with a friend to her place at the beach. Another friend joined us and, after giving the dogs a run around and buying food to make a good picnic, we headed out to his house in the campo or countryside. This gave me some useful background for my book and made the three dogs who accompanied us very happy indeed.

While out walking in the countryside one of the dogs began behaving strangely. She wouldn’t leave a particular patch of ground and was sniffing around. We soon found out why. Half hidden in a pile of fallen leaves there was a bird, its beady eye almost the only element which distinguished it from the mound of leaves and sticks around it.

Taking great care, we brushed away the leaves to reveal a wonderful creature, a young hawk. It had a rounded head and a vicious, hooked yellow beak, but also bright yellow-ringed black eyes and feathers which ranged from pale fawn to deep brown and black. It’s plumage wasn’t fluffy, so we new that it had fledged a while before, but it wasn’t the size of a fully mature bird. It also, quite clearly, had a broken wing.

The dogs were put in the car and we set about persuading the bird from its hiding place. It couldn’t fly and, if Wendy the dog could find it, so could other creatures which might be less innocently curious. If we left it where it was it would probably die or be killed.

Eventually we got the bird out and my friend placed it, cradling it delicately in her hands and ignoring it’s beak and talons, into a large cardboard box lined with old clothes . Off we set to find a refuge or rescue centre. But the sun was already setting in a blaze of red on the horizon. By the time we got to any habitation it would be much too late to find anywhere that was open.

So it came to stay with me. A wild hawk was my house guest.

It was a lovely and beautiful creature, with a fierce, quick-moving eye. When it was startled its feathers bristled and it seemed to glower at me for bringing it to my home. I provided it with water, but I didn’t have any dead rodents to hand, so I tried raw bacon, the only other meat product I had available.

Hawk was unimpressed. We stared at each other for a while.

It was warm in the room and the hawk, not to mention me, grew drowsy. I cut extra air-holes in the top flaps of the box and weighted the lid down, so as to prevent the bird from escaping and damaging itself trying to fly. After a few minutes I heard it settle down, presumably to sleep, and I went off to do the same.

When morning came Hawk was restless and emitted little whistling sounds, followed by one hair-raising shriek.  It probably scared my neighbours. They must have wondered what the sound was, coming from my flat on a Sunday morning. But I took it as a good sign. Hawk was alive and kicking. My friend, having finished her shift at the local hospital, came to collect it and took it to a bird recuperation centre.

Just yesterday, she contacted me to say that Hawk was doing well and the rescue people thought it would make a full recovery! This was my co-incidence.

Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photographs of my hawk – the flash on my camera would have frightened it, So the pics here are of other birds.

The Sequel

dfw-ja-r-cover-3d-nologoI am now just over half way through writing (I think) the sequel to ‘Reconquista‘ and I’ve just been to Jerez to concentrate on doing more. At just over two hundred pages, I’m getting to a particularly difficult part.

Like the Battle of Tarif-Al-Ghar in the first book, there is a big set-piece action scene in the sequel. Such elements are notoriously hard to get right, especially when, as in this and the earlier book, the action is viewed at roughly the same time by a number of different characters located in different places. So quite a lot of work has to go into establishing overall exactly what happens, where and when, before determining who can see, and hear, what and when.

One group of my characters is inside, so their view of what is happening is restricted to what they can see from a window and what they can hear. Yet others are caught up, separately, in parts of what is happening.

Being able to portray an ‘epic’ event in this way is one of the advantages of having a group of characters from whose point of view the story is being told. A single protagonist, or central character, might give the reader a more immersive
sword-790815_1280experience of that character, but cannot show more than what a single character hears, sees or feels and, unless they have an omnipotent position, that is necessarily limited. That’s not to say that such a viewpoint would have less power, it could be very powerful ( that would depend on the writing ) but it wouldn’t give the reader such an over-arching view.

the-villagee-book It depends what the author is reaching for. I have realised that I like a whole to be created by a sum of parts, as in the twelve inter-locking stories in ‘The Village’, my previous book. ‘Reconquista’ was similar, though a single tale, it had multiple strands within it. At some point I am going to have to move away from this structure, though, for the moment I’m happy with it – having multiple points of view also enables the author to create lots of excitement, which is what’s required in an adventure story.

I did lots of writing while I was away, but there were one or two remarkable distractions which will find their way into the book ( I will blog about those separately ).

As November is NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month I’m not the only person writing. There are people all over the english-speaking world writing novels, just as I am.  Take  look at the NaNoWriMo web-site to see what it’s all about.  Check out the NaNoWriMo Development Programme too, for people aged 17 and under. Last year over 633 regions across logo_of_national_novel_writing_monththe globe took part. So far this year 15,689,293 words have been written (there is a counter showing the number of words on the site). The deadline for all the writers is 11.59 on 30th November, when they all plan to have written a novel of at least 50,000 words.

The sequel to ‘Reconquista’ is going to be longer than that, but I will think of all those NaNoWriMo writers for inspiration, as I look out at the amazing ‘super Moon’, which was even clearer in Jerez than it is in London.

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