Gooseberry: July 2014

Week 1: July 4th, 2014

London Cabmen by John Thomson

Photograph: London Cabmen by John Thomson

The first chapter is posted on Goodreads, and the game is afoot. At this point I have no real idea what went into Aunt Merridew’s handbag. But it’s important that I do, because the whole plot will turn on whatever it is. I’ve prepared something as a standby option, for use if I can’t come up with a better idea by tomorrow—but, as it involves photography, I’d rather not use it if I can help it, because I used a plot involving photography for my first novel, The Bridge of Dead Things. The trouble is, tomorrow is now less than twelve hours away.

I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is to be writing fiction again. The feeling is magical. I have spent the last two years re-writing and editing novels for publication, and researching and writing two major articles per month to build up my website and blog. That was work, but this is pure pleasure—discovering new characters and bringing them to life, allowing them to find their own voices, seeing how they react to a variety of circumstances, and finding out what they’re emotionally capable of. I love it. I really do.

Till next week,
Michael


Week 2: July 11th, 2014

Photograph: Recruiting Sergeants by John Thomson

Photograph: Recruiting Sergeants by John Thomson

Well…

It’s a photograph after all.

In all honesty, one night was not long enough to come up with a better idea. I think this is something I’m going to have to get used to when writing Gooseberry. Unlike where I’m writing a novel in the normal fashion, I do not have the luxury of being able to wait around until inspiration strikes; I just have to go with what I can.

This week I was faced with taking a key decision: whether or not to make the flower girl a man. Originally the flower girl was to be a very minor role, whose task was simply to bring Gooseberry back into contact with his comrades from the Life. Earlier in the week, I was sitting and thinking about what I’d written that day, and planning what to tackle the next—which I tend to do in the evenings over a glass of white wine—and after the second or third glass it suddenly occurred to me that I should make her a man. The enormous benefit of this is that he suddenly becomes an instantly recognizable comic character who can accompany Gooseberry throughout his adventures, a major character in other words. The drawback is that it somehow lends the story a less-than-authentic feel, even though during this period there were obviously men who dressed as women and women who dressed as men. I guess the reason it begins to feel less authentic is that the novelists of the time would never have written about them, despite the long (and often literary) English tradition of cross-dressing. But I’ve been clear from the beginning: Gooseberry is not a sequel; it’s a spin-off, in the kind of comic detective genre where Bertha (as I imagine him) would be a star. I don’t think this is a choice I will come to regret.

Gooseberry himself seems to be shaping up rather nicely. We’ve seen him in action as a pickpocket, and we’ve had a tantalizing glimpse—not just of his past—but of his home life, too. I for one can’t wait for him to renew his acquaintance with Bertha in the next instalment.

Till next week,
Michael


Week 3: July 18th, 2014

Photograph: Covent Garden Flower Women by John Thomson

Photograph: Covent Garden Flower Women by John Thomson

Loads of research needed this week, as Gooseberry finds himself following Bertha beneath the Thames. What I’m talking about, of course, is the Thames Tunnel, the world’s first sub-aquatic tunnel, which now serves as part of the East London Line for the London Underground network. A couple of years ago I went down what remains of the Rotherhithe entrance, a circular shaft that only descends part of the way, which has now been sealed off with an ugly plug of concrete. As nothing remains of the steps or the landings, I found it impossible to imagine what the tunnel had looked like in its heyday. Luckily this week I was able to find some nicely detailed drawings that I could refer to. I also found a number of fascinating contemporary accounts by its visitors of their experiences in the tunnel.

The problem for me as an author is how to bring this setting alive without making it sound like a history lesson, and deciding what to include—and how to present it—is very much part of that. So the turnstile, the organ music, and the stalls with their marble counters and cheap wares are authentic, as is the coffee shop (and also the waiter, but not his jacket). The Egyptian Rune Reader is simply The Egyptian Necromancer by another name, but I have to say that the monkey is pure invention on my part (although this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one!) What was important to me was that tunnel should come alive in the writing, and I think that it has.

Till next week,
Michael


Week 4: July 25th, 2014

***Spoiler alert***
WARNING: AS THIS POST IS ABOUT THE PROCESS OF WRITING, DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO KNOW HOW THE NOVEL WILL END!

Photograph: The Crawlers by John Thomson

Photograph: The Crawlers by John Thomson

First of all, a disclaimer. The Thames Tunnel was, as far as I can tell, never a venue for prostitution. The idea suggested itself when I was reading a contemporary review of the tunnel experience by the Frenchman, François Wey, who, in 1853, wrote, “These booths ought certainly to be closed by the Government, both for the sake of hygiene and morality, as it is patent that trade here is only a thin cloak for prostitution”. It’s almost certain that this was sour grapes on Wey’s part, typical of the petty rivalry—on both sides—between Britain and France at that time.

Well, at least now we know who put the daguerreotype in Aunt Merridew’s handbag. I wonder if anyone saw that coming? Do let me know if you did. It was the one trick I kept up my sleeve when I couldn’t come up with a plot in the allotted time.

Even though I still don’t have a plot as such, every single choice I make regarding my characters narrows down and shapes what the novel must become. For example, having just introduced mad Johnny Knight, even at this point I know that a showdown between Gooseberry and Johnny is inevitable, and should by rights provide the climax to the book. This is an example of what I like to think of as a story’s “imperative”—something that must occur due to what has happened already.

As soon as I knew there was to be a showdown, I also understood another imperative. Gooseberry’s change of circumstance from master pickpocket to office boy only occurred because his boots had been stolen, so when the climax comes, Gooseberry must have his boots taken away from him again. It’s a small detail, but it’s important both physically and psychologically, for it should herald yet another change of circumstance for the boy.

What worries me is that, no matter how intelligent or resourceful Gooseberry may be, how can he hope to best a raging psychopath who’s twice his size and much, much stronger? Oh, why, when I had the chance, didn’t I give him some skills with a slingshot in the first chapter?

Till next week,
Michael