Research, Reading (and a bit of Writing) by Neil McGowan


It’s been a funny month for me from a writing perspective. I don’t feel like I’ve done much actual writing, in terms of getting words down on paper to tell a story, but I’ve still been busy doing ‘writer-y stuff’ (as my youngest calls it).

I’ve spent the bulk of my time working on research for the Rigoletto follow-up I mentioned last month – jotting down ideas for potential scenes, then researching the time period to find half of them wouldn’t be possible. I don’t mind taking a little some small liberties for the sake of the story, but I need to keep it somewhat grounded in reality. I’m aiming for a gritty crime drama, after all, and not a fantasy.

I actually quite enjoy running into these problems, if I’m honest. I find they force me to find creative solutions to the problems I place my characters in. I also find tight boundaries to be, paradoxically, quite liberating. Once I know where the limits lie, I’m able to plough on with the writing without worrying too much about wandering off at a tangent; the confines of the story tend to drive it forward.

I’m also trying to plot this story more – I think it’ll be more novella-length than full novel, but the way it seems to be developing that may change – which brings its own unique challenges. I’m tempted to fall back on my usual position of putting some characters in a difficult position and see how it plays out but I know that won’t work for this.

The characters (well, the main ones, anyway) are not really my creations, see; they’re the creations of Victor Hugo, filtered through the music of Verdi. As such, they already have character traits that I need to factor into the writing, which means asking myself not only ‘What would my characters do here?’ but ‘What would Verdi’s/Hugo’s characters have done?’ I also need to factor in the behavioural norms of not only a specific time period, but a quite tightly defined geographical location.

This is hard. I’ve never really written much historical fiction before (a couple of short stories is all that springs to mind, and both those used the time period more as a setting than a real-life backdrop).

But it’s also great fun. I’m learning all sorts of quirky facts (gun fights were usually won, not by the quickest draw, but by the person with the steadiest hand, for example). It’s also a short enough period to see how it rose and fell – the whole era is reckoned to have lasted just thirty years or thereabouts – from multiple contemporary accounts.

I’ve also been reading (of course!) Over the past four weeks I’ve read the latest Jeffrey Deaver (fast-paced action thriller with his trademark twist), Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory (millennia-spanning science fiction, and well worth a look – the first two in the series are also thought-provoking and highly original. In Children of Time – the first – I was actually on the side of the spiders, and in Children of Ruin, I was bemused by the octopuses…). Stephen King’s Fairy Tale was in there (good, easy-reading, in a languid way that draws you in; one of his best for a while) as was Amy McCulloch’s Breathless (slow start, but worth it, and also an interesting book set around mountaineering written by someone who actually has climbed some of the 8000 metre-plus peaks around the world. The only one I didn’t enjoy was Luckenbooth. I wanted to – the premise sounded great, but whilst the writing was on the whole good, the story was pretty much not there – I’m still not sure what the message was, and reached the end thinking, ‘Oh, and what was meant to happen?’ On happier ground now with the latest Harriet Tyce (It Ends at Midnight) which is shaping up to be a thumping good read so far. The TBR pile, has, however, grown even larger...


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