What Shapes A Book?
My Spook’s books are shaped by many things.
Let’s use the fifth book in the series, ‘The Spook’s Mistake’, as an example of the process.
Firstly, there is the original idea – often just the choice of location. For example, setting ‘The Spook’s Mistake’ 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. It’s called ‘The Water Witch’ so that idea had been simmering in my imagination for quite some time.
Also, if possible, I like to introduce a 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 use him and had Tom seconded to him for six months.
I develop characters through dialogue, from the way they ‘speak to me’, 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 books – I am open to change and I’m flexible and ‘discover’ each story rather than plotting it in detail before writing.
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. I know! 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 makes it somewhat unusual.
Now, we come to the title of the book. That is usually only decided as I reach the final draft but, once decided, it helps in shaping the narrative one more time. 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.