Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How I wrote Hope against Hope: Part One

My good friend Vanessa Gebbie has emailed to ask how on earth I went about writing such a big complicated novel so I thought I'd try and show 'how I did it.' (Although it's more of a 'don't try this at home, children.') I've already written about the trials and tribulations about getting it published and some of the changes and decisions I made were to do with the input from those agents and editors. In case you haven't seen it, here's the link.

That post briefly touches on what I set out to write but not how I went about it or how it changed--and boy how it changed.  It seems so long ago now that I can't remember how and in what order it developed so that now when I dare look at the finished product (typos and all) I wonder whatever possessed me to even begin such a monster or even the writing process. It sort of happened. I'm going to have to think very hard back to the time when I was a starry-eyed writer with two sons still at school, with a few short-story successes under my belt and was wondering whether I could actually write a novel. There was only one way to find out.

These days I understand pretty much what works for me and I don't try and do what doesn't come naturally. But then I listened and read a lot of advice and set out to do what other people recommended. I can't remember the moment when I decided to write about two sisters whose lives diverged but I knew from very early on that sisters it would be. (It would take a therapist to work out why. I have a few theories but nothing concrete.) But where to set it? I knew (why? No idea) it had to be set in the north of England, probably Yorkshire and that it would have railways in it. (again I can't tell you why except that railways have always fascinated me for a reason I can't explain intelligently.)

So the first thing I did was to do what other writers said they did and that was to set out in detail some sort of a synopsis, a plan--a kind of spreadsheet with a list of characters and each year the story spanned. (Then again this must have been later when I actually had more than one character.) Only I couldn't. Nothing materialised. I bought notebooks with squared pages. I tried rolls of old wallpaper I found in the attic, All remained blank. I thought about the first scene a lot--my sisters first ran a pub in the country and had a father (called Harry--who I had to kill off early one) and that May (then called Harriet!) would go into service at the local big house and be seduced by the son of the family.

Screeeeech! (Sound effect of brakes applied heavily.) Although I'd decided I was going to write popular rather than literary fiction (because that's what everyone told me was more likely to find a publisher) I soon realised that avoiding cliche was essential. And besides, once I got that far, I didn't know what would happen. I'd actually cliched myself into a cul-de-sac.

That's where planning lead up. Up a dead end. No through road. Fortunately I must have then attended  a talk or something (I was, as I said, very much swayed by what others said in those days) during which a published writer I admired laughed at the very idea of planning, said she wouldn't know what a plan was if it smacked her in the face and that she would find herself thinking about a character and a setting and started to write. So that's what I did and hey, it worked. I've since l;earned that I am, what is known in the trade as a panster--a horrid word which basically means I prefer to write by the seat of my pants. I can't plan and if I do, then I'm bored because I know what's going to happen. Read more about panster versus plotting here.

Sometime around then, I must have decided to set my novel in Harrogate. First of all, I was living there which made the research easy--I did a lot of walking about with a camera and identified buildings and locations I could use. And I was always borrowing local history books from the library. Lots of ideas were popping into my head mainly about which period in history and places I wanted to write about. Railways were never far away from my thoughts and although I knew that Harrogate's first railway station was not where it is now, I couldn't find any description of it whatsoever. Even when I found a short article about its opening in the Harrogate Advertiser of the week after, it was brief and to the point. No illustrations, no account of who was there and how one opens a railway station. Then I realised that this was an ideal opportunity. I could make it all up--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I also had decided at this stage that the title would be The Ringing Grooves. I still like this title but no-one else ever has so maybe they're right. It's a couplet from Tennyson's poem Locksley Hall:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,

Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

Not only was it written in 1842, smack in the middle of the period I wanted to write about, but I chose it to represent the sweep of history and change of the time that underlines the novel but also because it was written in the very early days of railway travel and Tennyson made a mistake. He thought that the wheels of engines and carriages fitted within a groove in the track and not, as is the case, the other way round. I felt this  a fitting metaphor for the misapprehensions and misinterpretations that are at the novel's heart.

Ah well...

For those of you who have read Hope against Hope and wonder how I managed to twist together so many different plots, all I can say that I love tangled plots anyway and that it happened organically--which is why I don't like planning. In addition there were originally at least three other plot strands that had to be unstitched at one stage. An agent said there were too many coincidences and too many people who detracted from the main 'ove story.' I will talk about this in my second post on the subject. But to round off this part, I thought I'd write about how I created my characters.

I shall take as an example, Bob Old, who I would describe as an important secondary character. I was still at the early very first draft stage and I needed to get Carrie and May (Then Caroline and Harriet!) from Leeds to Harrogate. Why would they choose there? It's fifteen miles from Leeds and not an obvious choice. I also wanted to describe a bit about Harrogate before they got there to give readers some indication of what a shock it would be to them. But how without a static and leaden lump of description? I needed someone who'd been there but didn't like it very much to describe it in dialogue. And so I invented Bob Old as a means to an end without any other role. But the more I wrote, the more he emerged as someone who 'carried a torch' for Carrie--at least to begin with--and would be a loyal friend throughout--a steady, if someone solid character. (I called him Bob Old, incidentally, although he is only in his early twenties at the beginning of the novel  because I have a friend of that name. Now he is everything the novel's Bob Old isn't. He's bright, witty, the life and soul of the party and also mischievous and I wanted to tease him back.) He wasn't meant to feature beyond the moment when his cart takes them away from Leeds but as I'm sure the writers amongst you will find that some characters will not fade away and the more I wrote the more useful I found him. Later, I wanted to get Tildy away from Carrie to prevent her from becoming a substitute May and what better way than to have Tildy and Bob fall in love? It was only later than amongst their other functions, they come to represent the rise of the Victorian middle-class with their tribe of children growing every year.

Have you ever made a tray or a bowl out of layers of sodden tissue paper or newspaper. That seems to me the way I create character. I add layer upon layer until they're solid, even having to take away certain character-traits or snatches of dialogue that don't work. Being is panster is a very wasteful way of writing in some respects but I can't write without that freedom to try things and discard them if they don't work.

This happened with many of the lesser characters. They began as a means to an end and then ended up with their own life. Some never became solid or were cut entirely. Kitty McVay was another favourite who began as a means to an end, to help May escape from Buxton House and show the true nature of what went on within its walls. In fact she played a greater part in the first draft and was cut back. But for those of you who would like to know, she survived the February Revolution, escaped to London in a stolen coach, thrived and ended up entertaining the London glitterati at Covent Garden with her own mansion in Piccadilly!

That's more than enough for now. More later.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hope against Hope: Hotels

The recent tragic fire at the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate gave me one of those scary moments. Those of you who have read Hope Against Hope will know that the climax of the novel is a hotel fire. (I'll say no more so as not to spoil things for those who haven't.)

Hotels have always been important to Harrogate. Once places where visitors would stay and be seen when taking the waters, they are now part and parcel of the town's booming conference and exhibition business. They also feature heavily in my novel. The Majestic Hotel isn't mentioned simply because it wasn't built until later.

Of the 'real' hotels mentioned in the novel, The Old Swan is the oldest. This, once an inn, was one of the very earliest hotels. For some time during the nineteen twenties and thirties, it was renamed the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel (or the Hydro) and it was at this hotel that Agatha Christie was 'discovered' after her mystery disappearance in the 1920s.

Other hotels mentioned in passing are The Dragon Hotel (since demolished) and The Granby Hotel (how a residential home.) The Brunswick Hotel (now a block of luxury flats) still looms large over the magnificent Prince of Wales roundabout with its all-year-round floral displays and is where Carrie was snubbed and humiliated, although she later got her revenge!

The Crown Hotel, pictured left, is where Carrie was presented with her silver rose-bowl trophy for being the Hotelier of the Year, only to realise that it meant nothing to her. It is also where the novel ends with May in splendour in the best suite.  It is probably the best hotel in Harrogate today and is currently the home to the internationally renowned annual Crime Writing Festival--an event not to be missed for any writer--even if crime isn't your genre.

Another early hotel was The Queen Hotel (now the Cedar Court), the scene of Pierre and Polly's disastrous seance in which they'd planned to get their grubby little mitts on Olivia's ruby.

So on to Carrie's hotels. Taylor's (later renamed the Railway) is a total figment of my imagination. For those of you who fancy doing a Hope Against Hope walk around Harrogate, I placed it where today Station Parade meets York Place and The Stray.

I based The Hope Hotel on the White Hart Hotel in Low Harrogate with its white stone facade and elegant rows of windows. Internally, it is again all my own imagination.

So, if you do visit Harrogate soon, do go for a drink or a meal in any one of the hotels and if you're lucky, you may. when you're not really looking, catch a glimpse of one of my characters flitting by...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

And the winners are...



who each win a signed copy to HOPE AGAINST HOPE! So, if you'd like to drop an email giving me your postal address to thewritingelephant@googlemail.com I'll post them off as soon as I can, bearing in mind that I only get to a post office once a week and the local carrier pigeons are currently on strike in protest against volcanic ash spoiling their tail feathers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Two great reviews!

Check this link to read a truly fab review from the Historical Novel Society's reviews magazine. You'll need to scroll down to the bottom, but while you're doing so, take a look at the illustrious company I find myself in. (And plenty of wonderful historical novels of all kinds.)

The even greater thing is that although I have been involved with the HNS for some years, I do not know the reviewer at all and I had nothing to do with Hope Against Hope being an Editors' Choice title. I am thrilled.

And thank you, thank you, 'Reader' from Bournemouth, whoever you are, for your lovely review on Amazon to add to Nicola Slade's--who is the fast making a name for herself as the doyenne of Victorian  whodunits.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A big favour--and a freebie (or two)

IF you've read Hope against Hope--and IF you didn't hate it--could you please pop over to Amazon UK and post a brief review here. I and my publisher would be ever so grateful. I'm not asking for five stars (although that would be lovely.) IF, on the other hand, you have read it and think it's complete and utter bilge, then please don't. I'm a fragile sensitive flower. (Shut up, Jane Smith.) Email me instead. I cry better in private.

If you could also spread the word among your friends and family who might  enjoy historical fiction set in early Victorian times, I will love you forever. (I've discovered from 10 book-signings that it's likely to find favour among the more mature female population. Birthday present for a favourite aunt?)

Better stop before I sound too desperate.

I also have two free copies to give away. Instead of just adding your name to the comments for a chance to be put into the draw, please email me at thewritingelephant at googlemail dot com and answer this question:

What is the name of the 200 acres of grassland to the south of Harrogate's town centre? (Answers will be found not too far away.)

You have until this time next week. (Tuesday 11th May.) I haven't a cat but I have a husband. He has been delegated the task of pulling two names out of the hat. Not that he knows yet. Mind you, it's the least he can do since he refuses to read it. I don't do fiction is not any sort of excuse in my view. It's an admission of inadequacy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Stray

It's a funny name isn't it? But this rather fuzzy map shows exactly how it embraces Harrogate on its south side to this day. These days it a gorgeous expanse of  grass where grass mowing tractors trundle across it every week in high summer, allowing that euphoric aroma of freshly-mown grass to waft across the town. My way into town from where I used to live took me across it. In summer it was glorious but in winter the wind could slice across it like a knife! And any rain is always horizontal. It is criss-crossed by paths lined with chestnut and cherry trees (whose pink, blousey blossom will look stunning right now as I type and the breeze will cause it to drift in confetti proportions across the paths, although the carpets of crocuses will have already finished--cue pictures!

(From L to R, they show a distance glimpse of what was once The Brunswick Hotel, where Carrie received short shrift, and is now Prince of Wales Mansions, a block of rather superior apartments; the Tewit Well, with the cupola which used to stand over the sulphur well before the Pump Room was built in 1842 and thirdly the famous crocuses!)

Up to the end of the 18th century, The Stray was rough grazing land on a wind-swept (still is!) area of high land which so happen to contain a variety of medicinal springs. Buildings grew up around these 'sources of health' to accommodate drinkers which in later centuries grew into fashionable hotels. This Brief History of Harrogate (well worth a read) explains the urgent need to protect the well and keep access freely available to all. Hence, the 200 acres of land stretching between the two centres of Low and High Harrogate was made the subject of an Act of Parliament on August 19 1778.

'The said two hundred acres of land shall forever hereafter remain open and unenclosed and all persons whomsoever shall and may have free access at all times to the said springs, and be at liberty to use and drink the waters there arising, and take the benefit thereof, and shall and may have, use, and enjoy full and free ingress, egress and regress, in, upon, and over, the said two hundred acres of land, and every, and any part thereof, without being subject to the payment of any acknowledgment whatsoever for the same, or liable to any action of trespass, or other suit, molestation, or disturbance whatsoever, in respect thereof.'

This remains in force today and will forever, I hope. It's a great place for a picnic, to fly kites, play football, hold an impromptu party. Its upkeep and welfare is keenly safeguarded by Harrogate Council and also The Stray Defence Association.

But why is it called the The Stray and what was it like at the time when Hope against Hope is set?  The name is lost in obscurity but it can be assumed it derives from the fact that those who were called 'Straygate holders' were allowed to their livestock to stray on it. Then it was still very rough pasture, very much like the open moorland we associate today with wilder areas of Yorkshire. People would ride across it, parade along its paths showing off their fine clothes and it even hosted a racecourse for a few years. (In fact the first race-meeting is featured in one of the later chapters of the novel.) It was rather wild and boggy and even now, if you stand in the middle of it away from footpaths and traffic, it can seem very lonely and remote. No wonder Carrie lost her way when she first encountered it in the dark!

It is still an icon of the town, so much so that the local commercial radio station is called Stray FM, and the name will be seen on many small businesses. Harrogate has its more formal Valley Gardens, Harlow Carr botanic gardens, its Royal Hall and International Centre and its chi-chi boutiques and antique shops--not forgetting the famous Betty's Tea Rooms--but the Stray remains the Jewel in its Crown.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Launch: I name this ship 'Hope against Hope'. May God bless her and...

'Twas a small but select gathering of my favourite people who assembled last Friday, 9th April, in Harrogate's Victorian pump Room Museum to get Hope against Hope off to a flying start. (Ships, flying? Get your metaphors sorted, woman.)

Briefly, in order, the photos show:

1. My publisher, Ed Handyside waxing lyrical about the book and my sceptical response.

2. Rapt attention as I read my extract. Darling Jane Smith in the foreground and towards the back, good friend and published novelist, Nicky Slade, quaffing, husband Morley twinkling as he eats--a rare talent and Linda Priestley, writer of short stories and gardening features and another friend who I'm glad to see is paying attention. I shall test her later. Also in the picture is John, a member of the fabulous Team Zigmond in fetching cover-design T-shirt.

3. More adoring fans. My sister in law. Rita; Jill Brewer, hiding; Jane again; Christine Todd, author of the recently published Pins which I shall blog about shortly and her husband plus Bill Brewer and Annette Bray, both good friends and neighbours from Rosedale Abbey.

4. Me reading with, I think, an unidentified press person falling asleep in the background.

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