It’s January 2022, and it’s been a long time since I posted on my own website. I’ve actually been posting like mad, but elsewhere, on other websites and Facebook pages that I seem to have been dragged into over the past year or so. Time to make amends, and for some reflection on my writing.
The new book ‘Collateral Damage’ is on the website, thanks to Russell who manages that side of things for me, but anyone curious about what I’ve been up to – apart from getting the new book out – would look in vain. My only excuse is that it’s been a very strange time for all of us. Priorities have been challenged and new perspectives emerging that seem to have taken me in different directions. Old routines were dismantled and replaced with new ones.
Even before the world changed and lockdown followed lockdown, I was beginning to ask myself about how many more novels I had in me. The last two, ‘Corruption’ in 2020 and then ‘Collateral Damage’ in 2021, were lockdown projects, ideal to fill the time released by the suspension of other activities. They were both crime novels using the same characters and West Cumbrian settings that I’d used before, which was useful as it reduced the amount of research necessary when some of my usual sources were unavailable. Local History archives were closed and it was less easy to find and talk to people in the pursuit of authenticity. These two books were still written with care, and I’m pleased with them both, but I felt less investment in them, especially compared to the earlier novels. They were designed to fill the gap left in the crime series that began with ‘Cruel Tide’, set in 1969, and ended with ‘Out of the Deep’, set in the autumn of 2001. Between ‘Fatal Reckoning’ (set 1971) and ‘Burning Secrets’ (set 2001), there was a thirty year gap, which needed filling in. Now that’s done, so what next?
The current project is not another novel, but a stage play, about the closure of the Millom Iron Works in 1968. It was prompted by my involvement with a big ‘arts project’ called ‘Deep Time’, which focusses on the industrial history of the West Cumbrian coast. Limitations of time put another novel out of reach, and I decided to go for a play instead. It was time I did some more learning, too – too easy to repeat the same skills for the tenth time. So a play it is. Working title ‘The Day the Iron Works Closed’. World premiere? Millom, September 2022. Watch this space!
Here it is – the cover of the new book. It’s due out on November 6th 2020, a child of the lockdown, and a good yarn. I’ll add it to my Paypal-linked website bookshop before publication day, and the Kindle version will be available after Christmas. The ISBN number is 978-0-9929314-6-9 if you want to buy it through your local bookshop. Tell your friends!
At 7.54am this morning I checked the Tesco online delivery service and to my astonishment, there was a delivery slot available and I got it. Not only that, I put in a long list of things we needed and checked out. All done within fifteen minutes, booked, paid for and the confirmation email kin the inbox. For some unaccountable reason this minor lockdown triumph filled me with confidence. I’d managed something that had been beyond my reach for weeks.
Within hours, the optimistic glow of a obstacle successfully hurdled transferred itself to the outline of a new story I’ve been struggling with. I can do this, I said firmly to myself. If I can scale the Tesco delivery mountain I can sort out the flabby middle of a plot which starts well, and could end well, but flounders around in between.
I can’t be the only one who struggles with a muddle in the middle. This is the stage where the story gets complicated, and possible blind alleys are introduced to tempt the reader but end up confusing the writer instead. It’s all very well starting several hares running, but you have to know roughly where they’re going to end up. I thought I’d done that, but going back to the outline after a bad night I realised that there were plot holes all over the place: hence the feeling of inadequacy that a successful tussle with Tesco seems to have cured.
So now I’m back, unpicking and mending the holes, unmuddling the middle and hopefully adding more life and colour to the story as a whole. The great thing about the current situation is that I can slow down and take my time. No point in having deadlines that just fade into the mist of uncertainty that surrounds us right now. This stage of the writing process will take as long as it takes, and when I’m ready, the first draft will roll out as smooth as a good Malbec.
It seems like eons ago that I decided to update my website, in another era, when we could go shopping, and see friends, and even have a holiday. The latter stages of working with my steadfast ‘helper’ Russell – bless him! – have been via Zoom, which was great as we could share what was on our laptops. Then we had issues with the Bookshop to work out and finally, finally, the whole thing was ready.
Russell picked out some of my past blog posts just to get us started, but now I’m writing a new post for the first time in a long time, to celebrate the new site. For a week or two I’ve been wondering how I could write a new post without reference to my novel writing which seemed to be on hold, paralysed by the sudden availability of time that I wasn’t prepared for. But as the first weeks of self-isolation have passed my mind has slowly turned to the idea of a new novel, and worked through the thicket of decisions about setting. The location is a given, it’ll be West Cumbria like all my other stories, but the question has been – When?
As some of you may know, I started some years ago with a trilogy set over twenty years, from 1937 to 1957. Then I turned to crime fiction and began with ‘Cruel Tide’ set in 1969, followed by its sequel two years later in 1971. After that I faced a quandary: I wanted to focus on a female CID officer in the Cumbrian force, but then discovered that there were no females above the rank of DC until the late 1990s, so the 1980s were passed over and my sixth novel ‘Burning Secrets’ was set against the dystopian background of the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001, followed by the seventh ‘Out of the Deep’ later that same year.
So, now what? Earlier this year I was favouring writing a ‘prequel’ to the original trilogy, set in and around Barrow-in-Furness just before World War One. That would have necessitated a fair amount of research and primary documentation accessible through the Records Office, but that door closed – literally – as the current lockdown began. So I needed a writing project that could use research already done, filling in some of the blanks in the chronology of the series so far.
For some time I’d wanted to look at the 1980s, a time when policing was changing almost beyond recognition. During that decade the Police and Criminal Evidence Act was passed, DNA testing was first used in criminal prosecution, the Crown Prosecution Service began, and developments in computing revolutionised the gathering and collation of data. There would be many police officers who welcomed and embraced all these changes, but there would be others – inevitably – who hankered for the old ways of doing police business.
Tension and disagreements make for good stories, and the backdrop of the 1980s provided other useful national and local flash points. The Miners’ Strike of 1984, for example, did not affect Cumbria directly as the few hundred miners left in the county voted to keep working, but that decision also would bring with it the kinds of tension that a good story will thrive on. So after much wandering around, I think I’ve decided on the year, and can build my cast of characters accordingly, some of them already established in the first two crime novels, and others in the early stages of careers that we’ve already witnessed in the 2001 novels.
This sounds like a logical thought process, which was far from the case, but now at last I have an idea that might float, and a place to start. New website, new story – a fresh start all round.