What Shapes the Writing of a Book?
My Spook’s books are shaped by many things.
Firstly, there is the original idea which is often no more than a spark without any clear idea of how the rest of the narrative might be ignited. I do not plan my books in advance. I discover my plots as I proceed. One good step forward is the choice of an interesting location.
In Wulf Four (it has yet to receive a title as it is still a work in progress) I decided to look at various places that Wulf might visit. So, I visited those possible locations: – Keswick, the nearby Castlerigg Stone Circle, Skipton and Mother Shipton’s cave. Just seeing the stone circle in its dramatic location brought ideas and a sense of place into my head. It was raining with low cloud – and that also brought a mood into the narrative.
Later, eating lunch in a pub in Keswick, I saw a woman feeding what I thought to be a child – but to my astonishment, on second glance, it was a dog partially dressed in what appeared to be children’s clothes! That astonishing sight went into my notebook and narrative plans. In the narrative, Wulf was on his way to deal with a dangerous threat but I then realised that this could be a diversion, one that might lead to more important plot consequences.
So, in my developing fictional world, the woman became a witch and the creature she fed became her familiar. This is a good example of another narrative device that I use – happenstance. Things do happen by chance but sometimes it almost seems as if fate is involved and you were meant to have that meaningful useful experience. If you are observant, ready and receptive for what real life thrusts your way, you can seize it and use it! If you go out into the world and observe things whilst letting your imagination run free, a story may start to take shape!
Another example is the writing of Book Five, ‘The Spook’s Mistake’. I chose the location to be north of Lancaster, on the edge of Morecambe Bay and the southern Lake District, created an environment in which it was natural to introduce water witches. Additionally, I used to visit a pub in Lancaster and sit on the canal bank on a warm summer’s day (they are rare in Lancashire!). It’s called ‘The Water Witch’ so that idea had been simmering in my imagination for quite some time. Thus, a new type of witch came into my Spook narratives!
If a book is part of a series, previous books inevitably shape the one being written. Characters and locations from earlier books are very likely to be included and it is what the reader expects – the familiarity and comfort of a known world. But the next book must avoid too much repetition and include novelty. If possible, I like to introduce a new location and at least one new character into each new book in the series. Bill Arkwright had been mentioned in previous books as a spook who could continue Tom Ward’s training (if anything happened to John Gregory). So, I decided to feature him and so had Tom seconded to him for six months.
I develop characters through dialogue, from the way they ‘speak to me’ and that also advances and shapes the plot, so it came as a surprise to find that Arkwright, rather than being the nervous wreck of a man I had planned, turned out to be an aggressive bully with several problems ranging from the supernatural to an extreme liking for alcohol. So that’s another thing that shapes the writing of my books – dialogue which reveal character history and new narrative possibilities. I also like to maintain an on-going narrative, developing the back-story over the whole series. By the end of the book, I had become aware of Alice’s true identity and decided on a shock revelation close to the end of the story.
Editors also shape a book. They advise on what’s good and bad about a work in progress and try to ‘prod’ the writer into producing better work. My first editor, Charlie Sheppard, took a close look at my progress and on reading the third draft, told me she would like a significant change. There was a chapter where Tom and the Spook had an adventure underground in a system of mines. ‘You’re always going underground!’ she complained. ‘Try something different. Set that part of the book on an island in the lake!’
I didn’t really want to do that. What could happen on a small island with just a few trees? The location didn’t seem promising. But, pressured by Charlie, I decided to try. The result was the folly built on the island; two towers linked by an underwater passage. I added to that some exploration, where Tom could try out his newly learned swimming skills and an encounter with water witches. It was better than the original adventure underground. So that’s an example of how an editor can shape and improve a book.
Dreams often shape my books and I include my nightmares. One example is the haunted house in ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’. But I have to confess that none of my dreams feature in ‘The Spook’s Mistake’. That made it somewhat unusual.
Now, we come to the title of the book. That is usually only fixed as I reach the final draft but, once decided, it helps in shaping the narrative one more time. Changes are needed to justify the chosen title! The mistake in this book had to be foregrounded and made clear to the reader. Then, if possible, it had to be expanded so that there was more than one mistake made by more than one spook. That done it was time to send the book to the copyeditor for a final check. You need to read the book to find out what the mistakes were!