“Be Here Now” – the slogan a friend wore on his t-shirt way back in the 1980s. It was all a bit mystical and Zen at the time, a call to live in the present and appreciate the world around us but it is just as valid today. Perhaps it is even more so. Then there were no mobile phones, let alone smart phones. The Internet was a plaything for genuine technologists and our idea of a computer was a ZX Spectrum with 16K of RAM (yes – that is kilobytes) and the wonder of 8- colour graphics on a portable TV set. The great distraction was the Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player with ear-muff style headphones and a deeply irritating metallic jangle that affected all around. We became accustomed to seeing people nodding their heads and humming tunelessly as they ambled along and there is something wonderful about having music playing in your head but it does set up a barrier between the user and the rest of the world.
What has this to do with writing, you may wonder. Well, I’m quite happy to use my I-pod to build my own world in my mind, especially on those long, cold winter mornings when I’m outside wondering why I have dogs. Very comforting and distracting, but not good for seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling what is around. Most of the time I walk and look, listening to the wind or the birds, seeing the trees move and watching people as they pass by, each with their own world and their own story. When I get to my desk I have pictures and fragments of sound in my head, scraps I can weave together to try and create a living world within my novels.
I was walking through our lovely Valley Gardens a few months ago with my niece and we stopped in a secluded area just to listen to the birds singing. She commented on how peaceful it was compared to Tokyo where she lives and I agreed. In fact I waxed a bit lyrical about the breeze, the rustle of the trees, the colours and ripples in the water by the bridge, the scent of the newly cut grass… She gave me that hard stare nieces can give their aunts and said, “How do you notice all that? It must be really confusing seeing everything all the time”. I was surprised. I thought everyone noticed this stuff but apparently not. Maybe that is one of the things that makes a writer, this awareness of the world. I am “Here, Now”, and I could not do my job unless I were. The singing railings and murmuration of starlings from “The Drowners”? I experience them every week. My dogs become Mouse and Mickey and around me I hear fragments of conversations I can give to Ada or Lauren or Tom. So my advice to any would-be writer is to train your eyes, and ears – every sense in fact – because once you are open to what is around, you can take your readers with you into a world or a time of your own creating and it will be real to them.
One of the more interesting aspects of writing is the arrival of the “helpful reader”. Formally identified by Bernard Cornwall of “Sharpe” fame, the helpful reader is more knowledgeable and even more eagle-eyed than your editor at their best (or worst). Helpful readers abound in all genres and eras but they flock to historical fiction with the greatest enthusiasm. Enthusiastic and vocal, these amateur experts are attuned to the smallest slip-up and always ready to offer some helpful advice.
Now, I write books set in the 1980s which can be particularly problematic. Within living memory, the 80s have not had time to settle into the homogenized lump that is history. Those that remember the 80s all had an individual experience. Some never encountered a computer or the Internet at all. Many people flourished under the Thatcher government, enjoying new opportunities and a rapidly improving life style. We do not have history’s verdict on the 1980s and so any description, any story, must be based on individual experience.
This is not to say the research needs to be any less meticulous. I recently had the happy experience of reading a dozen submissions to a publisher and the range and depth of material was a delight but I was very disappointed by the lack of background knowledge in some stories. Perhaps I am a pedant in disguise – or a “helpful reader” held in check by the demands of my own work – but writing demands a certain cold analytic rigour if it is to be successful. Terry Pratchett once wrote it was fine to create a world with flying pigs but you’d better make sure there were a lot of umbrella factories on your planet and he’s got it right. I originally trained to work in the theatre, backstage doing lighting and sound. It was impressed on us all how important it was to get everything right. Theatre, like writing, depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not real and you have to help your reader accept the world you present. A sudden glaring error shakes them out of that suspension and you risk losing them for ever so please – check, double check and ask stupid questions – get it right!
And my own “helpful reader”? I have a gentleman who is concerned the fish in “Death of the Elver Man” don’t act the way his fish do. He would really like to take me fishing to show me what he means. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve never fished in my life (though I know a lot of people who do). I don’t think I’ll be taking him up on his kind offer but thanks anyway.
I must admit, I was very despondent at the end of last year when despite all our efforts “The Drowners” failed to make the shops in time for Christmas. We were so close to a December release but – there were problems with the cover and so we decided to wait and make sure it was as good as we could possibly make it before launching.
On the positive side, the cover does look very good now and the second book in the series is now available in paperback from Amazon, direct from Impress or can be ordered through any bookshop. The e-book is also ready and should be out in the next few weeks.
Although it is a sequel (the story picks up six weeks after “Death of the Elver Man” ends) “The Drowners” can be read as a stand-alone novel so if you are new to Alex Hastings and the world of the Somerset Levels in the 1980s, jump in and give it a try!