Red Lion Avebury from This Is Wiltshire
Fire At Red Lion, Avebury from This Is Wiltshire

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Red Lion in Avebury — it’s the most typically English thing imaginable — a half-timbered, thatched pub situated right in the middle of one of the most significant ancient sites in the world — the famous stone circle.

In a typically English prosaic touch, the pub isn’t preserved in an idyllic garden but has a busy A-road passing right by the front door — and, when I’ve visited, this had brought a load of bikers stopping off to provide the pub’s clientèle — not ruddy-faced yokels.

In the current draft of the novel, it’s mentioned at least twice (Kim and Emma are into the stones’ energy) — and the exterior looks quite like I imagine The Angel itself to look — particularly the thatching.

As the photo shows above, the Red Lion became one of the many thatched hostleries to catch on fire — fortunately this was contained in the Red Lion’s case but I know at least three pubs (at least two that were thatched) that have burned down into a shell in the last ten years within 15 miles of where I live: the Woolpack, Stoke Mandeville — rebuilt extraordinarily quickly; the Bottle and Glass, Gibraltar (between Aylesbury and Thame); and the Rising Sun, Ickford (a village in the wilds up near J8 of the M40). Fortunately all have been rebuilt and all are thriving.

So, thinking of plot ideas, if I have a lovely thatched pub in my novel, it wouldn’t be too improbable for some similar catastrophe to hit the building, would it?

Looking for Inspiration

I wrote quite a bit in a short time up until the last Saturday workshop — around 7,000 words of the beginning of ‘The Angel — two sizeable chapters or perhaps three or four shorter ones. I tend to like shorter chapters myself when I’m reading a book — it leads to a feeling of having achieved more as a reader. However, the style I’ve written in tends to change point of view between James and Kim (in fact for the first chapter more than POV — the whole scene changes as they are apart). That might make for chapters that are too bitty or too obviously in parallel. No need to worry so much about that at the moment, though.

I also wrote about 4,000 words for Swan Supping — mainly a walk and the Beer Diet attached to a previous post — and submitted a 3,500 word assignment for my MSc. (However, there is a serial called ‘The Gravediggers’ Arms’ in Swan Supping, now in its fourth part, by a Charlie Mackle that concerns someone called James taking over a pub — a bit of a protoype for ‘The Angel’.) This probably came off worst in terms of quality. I’ve had it marked and got 60%, which is ok, but based on initial comments from my supervisor I’d hoped to bullshit a bit more effectively but she’d found me out in places and I realise I’ll need to put more time into the next one, which actually counts towards the course marks. Even so, I suppose I’ve taken the first steps to doing it, which is probably the biggest obstacle in these sort of things.

Given that about 3,000 words of The Angel’s extracts were written a week or two before then that’s about 11,000 words done in the space of just over a week. Since then I’ve found it quite difficult to get myself going again. I note from Bren Gosling’s latest blog post (that I note enviously was written from Sicily) that he’s also finding it difficult to start up again after the culmination of last term. In an effort to re-invigorate myself I’ve gone back and looked over the comments that coursemates made on the scripts of the extracts I read for my third reading, back at the end of February. That was two scenes — one of James and Emma looking over a spreadsheet about finances and one the fire scene with James and Kim. The comments were, without exception, really supportive and generous. Some queried a few practical things (volume of fire alarm, is dopamine a hormone? and so on) and made some constructive suggestions. A few comments recurred among several readers — ‘dialogue is always one of your strengths’, ‘the characters’ voices seem real’, ‘believe in the finance speak’, ‘fast-moving’, ‘a page turner’, ‘want to find out what happens next’, ‘deft and sly humour’ and there was also one comment that praised the prose, which I particularly liked as the writing wasn’t particularly showy in those sections. Most comments said this was the best section yet and how it was hitting its stride — which makes it all quite infuriating to find it quite difficult to make myself sit there and grind out more of it unless I have some deadline looming.

I’ve rewritten the ends of the two threads from James and Kim’s POV inside the tub carriage where he turns up on the morning he’s been fired to pay £500 for a painting that she tried to sell for £1,000 the night before at a viewing. This was the end of the chapter I submitted to Alison as my supposed 4,000 novel opening (it’s more likely to be the end of chapter one and start of chapter two). The rewritten part is just practical scene-setting for the 1,000 or so words I’ve managed since then. These, in themselves, tend to set up the rest of the day, which will be the long-anticipated bender (subject to much procrastination in writing terms). He’ll find out she’s in serious debt and she’ll reveal she makes ends meet by working some shifts in a pub (hardly on international art collector circuit money). I’ll also try to describe how Kim looks. It’s important that she’s not too good-looking but she has to have the capability of developing into someone he does find very attractive in the end (Jane Eyre similarities again). She’s also got to look fairly good from a distance in a soft-focus sort of way (I have some plot ideas about this) so he’ll get close up to her and find a few off-putting things like imperfect complexion, unhealthy pallor, bony face exaggerated by piercings and so on — all stuff that can gradually melt away.  

The bender scene will also pack in quite a lot of character exposition. I’m hoping I can get away with this by moving fast from location to location but I do have concerns that I’ll have perhaps an opening 15,000 words or so that almost entirely concentrates on the two principal characters over a period of about 30 hours in London. I raised this at my tutorial with Alison a week last Saturday and she seemed to think it was ok. I’ll end up following this introduction with an extended time period during which the two characters team up and build up their business, which will be quite a contrast. However, there will be quite a nice symmetry in that I plan the ending to be in London with a similar fast pace, though I may have to insert extra plot elements to bring it up to anything like 15,000 words.

Speaking of Alison’s tutorial, I specifically asked in advance about some concerns that I had and she replied in pencil on a printout of the e-mail in amusingly laconic fashion. ‘Is the scene with James fast-moving enough? ‘ [YES] ‘Are the ones with Kim on her own too slow?’ [OK — WITH EDITING — NB. I’m personally still a little concerned about these being static especially when I continue the action later in Village Underground.] ‘I’ve intercut the two threads in this extract and wonder whether this is a valid approach.’ [YES] ‘I’m also interested in what you make of the location for Kim — it’s a bit unusual but is it clear?’ [YES — GREAT]. And the real paranoid ‘is it any good question: ‘Overall, would this set up a story that readers would be interested in?’ [YES]. So I take all that as not a bad endorsement and really a call for myself to bloody get on with it.

Opening the Novel?

Unlike the majority of my fellow students on the City course I’ve not approached the writing of either of my novels-in-progress in any kind of sequence — either chronologically or in anticipation of the eventual order in the book. I’m not too concerned by this as I think my brain works in a non-linear way — my (by now fairly distant) past in computer programming means I’m quite familiar with defining the meaty, functional bits of a concept and then choreographing these together — in the same way as one might write a coherent argument or report. The exercise I did with the post-it-notes (see post below) was quite useful for taking stock of where I planned to get compared with where I am now but it’s evident that I still need an opening for ‘The Angel’ and that, while I’ve written an opening for ‘Burying Bad News’ that’s likely to be superseded by later developments.

Over the weekend I thought I had a plan. I would start off ‘The Angel’ in dramatic fashion with James being unjustly fired from his financial job — being made a scapegoat partly because he’d been slowly drifting away from being ‘one of the lads’ and engaging his interest in arts. I guess this subject could be the most autobiographical of any of my writing as I’ve now twice been on the wrong end of this experience myself — currently going through the consequences of this ‘process’ as HR people like to term it. Perhaps, because I’ve aired quite a few of my own grievances, I’ve managed to do 3,000 words of this opening.

It’s in three sections — starting in media res halfway through the meeting where James is ‘re-organised’ in clinical HR speak; then a scene which is quite useful in a number of ways where he packs up his mementos from his desk (lots of character clues through the artefacts) and befriends the Somali security guard; finally a more dramatic scene in the gents where the real reasons that he’s been fired are revealed — not going to the lap dancing club being one — and he hits his erstwhile boss.

It was a real slog to write all this and took me a whole day to revise it (I think I was still feeling the effects of my cold/flu). However, 3,000 words is quite a lot, especially when this section doesn’t impinge much on the rest of the plot. To break it up a bit and avoid the impression it’s a book wholly about City types, I’m planning to interleave James’ section with Kim’s own crisis which I think  I’ll have happening in parallel.

I have a nice vision of her having an almighty row and bust up with the St. John Rivers-type character I’m yet to define — I see her standing on the top of Village Underground in Shoreditch throwing his stuff down to the street from 40 feet above Great Eastern Street. The trouble is I’m finding it difficult  to think of what she could throw without her getting arrested. I’ve wondered about her pouring paint on him. Maybe she could do it on the other side of Village Underground near the entrance to the warehouse and the spiral staircase which is currently a dead end due to the construction of the new Shoreditch High Street station? I think this would work quite well if it’s quite physical and visual as it would contrast with the corporate stuff. The two would then turn to each other in the aftermath of their stressful mornings and head out on the aforementioned bender.

If I do two scenes with Kim at about 1,500 to 2,000 words and I guess the bender is going to take about 4,000 words (I’d like to write this for my tutorial with Alison on 27th March,  although I need to get it to her earlier than that) then I’m going to have about 9,000 words of an opening to the novel, which I think might be ok if I’m looking at around 80-100,000 words overall. I’ve already written an ending of about 3,000 words which could be expanded (I wrote it bearing in mind the tutorial word limit) and it needs some context preceding it. I’d then probably have my two pivotal plot points at about the 12-15,000  and 70-75,000 word points — where the action leaves London and then returns. Seems far too neat to actually work out properly!

Speaking of Village Underground, I was quite alarmed to hear on the radio this morning about the huge fire in an ‘office and bar complex’ in Shoreditch. Fortunately, for my own selfish purposes, it’s not Village Underground that’s gone up in flames, it’s a place about half a mile away from Shoreditch High Street — but it just shows how real life can intervene in these things.

Something Borrowed…Leads to Plugging Some Gaps

The end of my last extract, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to read on Saturday, had a fire scene in The Angel. For some reason I was looking around on the internet for fire and ice imagery and came across some references to a classic novel which has a couple of fires. I decided to ‘borrow’ a bit of the action, although the original language was definitely not in keeping with the tone of what I was writing.

Here’s some selected parts of the source — no need to worry about quotation as it’s very out of copyright:

‘I hurried on my frock and a shawl: I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand…I [was] amazed to see the air quite dim, as if filled with smoke; and while looking to the right hand and left, to find whence these blue wreaths issued, became further aware of a strong smell of burning…in an instant I was within the chamber. Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep. “Wake, wake!” I cried. I shook him but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him…I rushed to his basin and ewer…both were filled with water. I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug,  baptized the couch afresh…the splash of the shower-bath I had liberally bestowed, roused Mr Rochester at last.’

This gave me the idea to have Kim empty ice on James to try and wake him, although my fire wasn’t dramatic enough to have flames inside the room:

‘ She coughed. The air stank. The smoke detector at the end of the hallway bleeped incessantly. She ran to the top of the stairs. Catching an orange glint in corner of her eye she stopped and looked out of the window. She saw flames through the outside glass door of the function room…”James. James. Wake up. Wake up. There’s a fire.” Kim shook him hard…flames were licking at the thatched roof…Turning the bar sink taps on full, she grabbed two bar towels and plunged them into the water. She picked up a plastic bucket and filled it from the ice machine. Carrying the bucket, she rushed upstairs, pressing a wet towel to her face. In her room she found James had put on his jeans but had then fallen asleep again on the bed. The thatch was now ablaze outside the window…Kim threw the ice in his face. “Get up you stupid man. There’s a fire. I’m not leaving you here.” As he awoke, a finger of black smoke entered the bedroom.’

I guess almost every writer who’s ever read Jane Eyre will probably have consciously or unconsciously borrowed something from the novel but it was quite fun to do. No one noted on any of the scripts that they’d spotted it, although had I got to read it out then perhaps it may have been more obvious.

I think there’s a bit of a Jane Eyre archetype in the plot of the book. While James isn’t really a Mr Rochester, Kim is going to be coming from somewhere different (Germany) to London and then will meet James and fall out and reconnect with him later (perhaps?) but I think her St. John Rivers phase will come before James. Hold on! That’s given me an idea for the sort of character she can hang around with in London — a supporting character and a bit of sub-plot that I noted I was lacking with the post-its.