01: July & August 2015

Bovril girl
To begin at the beginning . . .

July 2015

July 20th, 2015 (This was the first diary entry.)
Where some novels spring into mind from a single scene – even a single line or, as Ed McBain claims, from the title (“I start with the title and go on from there”) my one has been swimming sluggishly in the backwaters for several months. Indeed, in some ways it has lurked beneath the surface for several years; the idea of fictionalising incidents from my mother’s life is one that has thrust its head up (only to be pushed back down again) intermittently for at least a decade. Other writers, I’m told, plunder their own lives for every novel (which may explain why, in some cases, their lifetime output of novels is in single figures, for how exciting can one writer’s life be?). But I’ve not been tempted – for two reasons perhaps: I am a private person with no desire whatsoever to share my secrets and, second, I think fiction is something you make up.
In my mother’s case – in our family’s case – people have told me that “you couldn’t make it up.” She is, of course, part of an almost lost generation: born in the First World War, married in the Second, and dying in the later war in Iraq. (During, rather than in that war, I hasten to add. She was not a participant.) But in my novel I shall not let her die at that time. She will live on to see her hundredth birthday, and the party which celebrates will bring the dysfunctional family together, during which their secrets will be revealed.

July 27th, 2015
I’ve got into some bad habits these last few weeks, as I’ve been musing over this novel while tidying a previous one. (Were they the final adjustments? They should be… Oh, for goodness sake, Russell, let it go.) You see, mulling over and tidying are the kinds of tasks that don’t really fit to a schedule; they’re not regular. I stare into space, go for a walk to clear my thoughts, remember other things that need doing – and lose that essential habit of regularity. No one tells a writer to clock in and set to work. There are so many other things that can be done instead. This week I spent an hour and a half (!) at the opticians – and bought three pairs of glasses! (Yes, I know: two exclamation marks in one line; I said I’d lost the habit of writing properly.) Plus it took me half an hour to get there, another half an hour to come home. And while in the High Street among the shops…
Half a day lost.
Another day we had friends round for lunch. Half a day gone. Then I spent almost a complete day on a short story. I have started on my tax return. Yesterday, unforgivably, I saw there were several jobs to do in the garden…
The result? Let’s just say I’m not going to do a word-count for my (lack of) output this week.

August 3rd, 2015
It’s becoming clear that the crux of my novel is not merely the revealing of family secrets. That’s often been done before. Nor am I concerned to show that different observers bring different takes to the same scenes. That too has been done before. The crux will be that the mother’s secrets (which are barely secrets at all, since she is an open and gregarious woman who loves to gossip and occasionally to shock) are deemed by the family to be much worse than their own secrets. But are they?
’Twas ever thus. As we will learn, the secrets people condemned were what she was doing then and what they felt she was guilty of then. Now they are memories from the past. At the time she was condemned and punished by those whose hasty judgment swept aside any attempt to understand what made her do the things she did. Now we’ll ask: were her sins so major? Were they unique? Were they sins at all? We may decide that those questions have two answers, depending on whether they are judged by the standards which applied in the times she lived in or by the more liberal standards we live by today. Or is there one eternal standard of right behaviour?
That’s what I want to explore – but what’s the answer? I may not know that till I’ve written the book.

August 10th, 2015

These, I’m told, are the halcyon days of novel writing, the early days when the characters are embryonic, swimming in a fluid of my imagination where I can, as it were, dip my finger into the fluid and push the characters this way and that.  But, as has been said a million times before, my characters are living beings, and they will no more consent to being shaped by their maker than a child will allow itself to be shaped by its parents’ hopes.

Already one of my principals has changed sex.  Actions planned for one sibling have been transferred to another.  Ages have been adjusted.  Spouses and offspring not central to the story remain mere specks in the amniotic fluid (faint swirling clouds would be a better metaphor) barely shaped at all.  Though I shall soon nudge them towards a half-life, they won’t show their true personalities until they fall dripping from my pen.  (Yes, I write longhand.)  So it seems the halcyon days are when the characters are so insubstantial that they haven’t yet developed the stubborn and argumentative natures that they will have, when they refuse to bend to my whim.

I know that the halcyon days don’t come in the sunniest days of summer; they are the two hopefully calm weeks around the winter’s solstice, when the halcyon (Greek for kingfisher) is supposed to breed.  And what can one expect after the winter solstice?  Winter storms.  I can’t wait.

August 17th, 2015

I am not Ed McBain, so I do not “start with the title and go on from there.”  For my new book I do not yet have a title.  Usually I do.  Usually I have had the title from the outset, and at times that title has helped shaped the narrative or, at least, has helped remind me what the book was supposed to be about.

For example: Count Me Out suggested its setting, the last fairground boxing booth in Britain, but it told also of the hero’s attitude: count me out of my brother’s crime, count me out of the way conventional people live – and the title also had a whiff of doom, since no boxer wants to be counted out.  Similarly, Painting in the Dark was about paintings and the artist who painted them, but the title also hinted that the pictures were, in some ways, painted in secret and that the subjects of those paintings were very dark indeed.  Underground had its beginnings and climax set under ground…  But I won’t go on.

I haven’t yet settled on a title for this particular novel – and that bothers me.  I am inclined to agree with those who say that until you have a title firmly lodged you haven’t really worked out what the book is about.  Do I know what this book is about?  Not yet, I suppose, not really.  It will only be as I write it down (write it out is a better phrase; when I let the story come out) it will only be when my thoughts stumble onto paper in inchoate form that I shall detect some kind of structure, some kind of underlying theme, a direction even – although I know (or I think I know) where the story is to go.  I know (or I think I know) how it will end.  I have an end-point, a destination, but I have yet to unfold the map.

August 24th, 2015

By this stage I really ought to have a title.  I have a working title which fits, but it suggests a less salubrious book, one more salacious than I intend mine to become.  (Indeed, the form of the book prevents its ever becoming truly salacious; mucky, yes, in the way that gossip can be, but salacious?  No.)  Yet the working title, Mother Naked, fits, because the stories people tell about the mother will metaphorically strip her bare; her own stories will be revealing too; we shall see her without her protective clothing – but in flashback, not at her present age of a hundred!  Also, I think my working title suggests an element of shock.

One wants an arresting title.  But nevertheless.  Annoyingly, I did have another, better title a few days ago – and I forgot it.  In the middle of the night I was smitten with a fine idea and yet, at dawn, I found it vanished.  I know I had it, I know it was a fine new title and yet…  This is an experience common to just about everyone, I guess, not just to writers.

It’s no consolation to remind myself of those other occasions when I have leant over to the side-table by my bed, switched on the light, and jotted some fine middle-of-the-night thoughts down (and by doing so have woken up completely and have threshed about beneath the sheet for the next half hour).  Neither is it a consolation to remember that when I have read those scratchily written notes in daylight I have almost always been disappointed.

Is that what happened to my ‘fine’ title: could it not stand the harsh light of dawn – or was it that my new title was adequate but not memorable?  How memorable can it have been if I so quickly forgot it?  When an author forgets his own title…

In the meantime I shall persist with Mother Naked.

August 31st 2015

I had lunch today with a friend, and as friends do while hoping for not too long an answer he asked, “How’s the writing coming on?”  I touched on my telling this story in a variety of voices, saying that I found the approach easy (this time) and that I hoped it was a sign that my characters had already developed their own unforced personalities.  I added that it was an enjoyable way to write.

Although a writer in his time plays many parts, as Shakespeare almost wrote, would my readers find my text enjoyable?  I find writing in multiple voices fun but the reader may find it confusing or even tedious, and I am determined that my novel shall be neither confusing nor tedious.

Given that the book is based in part on my own real-life experiences, the use of multiple voices in which I inhabit the different characters means that (unlike in previous books where I also ‘became’ my characters) I shall see this story – see episodes from my own life – from other people’s points of view.  But these are real people.  They existed.  They really did these things.

Today I have, for the first time, entered the mind of and (again for the first time) begun to understand the ‘ogre of my childhood’, the equivalent of the Wicked Witch or evil step-mother of fairy tale.  I ‘became’ the ogre, the woman who blighted my early years, ill-treating me to such an extent that the neighbours eventually stepped in to blow the whistle.  To me she has always seemed unforgivably evil.  Now, weirdly, I see why she may have allowed herself to behave as cruelly as she did.  I won’t say that I forgive her, for what does forgiveness mean?  Few of us really grasp the term, so can we ever really forgive?  I can’t answer that.  All I know is that in the past I have bluntly condemned her behaviour.  Now for the first time I have delved more deeply to examine what until now had, for me, been a mere cut-out representation – and lo: behind the pasteboard I find there lurks a real person.

Catch up with entries for September here:


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