Writing By The Seat Of Your Breeches

Writing By The Seat Of Your Breeches

I was chatting yesterday with a friend – who is a Very Famous Author, I might add, and I’m not going to tell you who they are but I have known them for some considerable time. I say that so you appreciate that this was a most informed and erudite discussion and did not in any way involve discussions about poo.

Anyway, the purpose of this discourse (yes, of course I’m writing one of the new Russell books: he’s catching, like the mange) was talking about writing style. I was being interviewed for a blog as apparently I’m an extreme pantser. We decided this was a most undignified manner of description as my friend is also a pantser, to a lesser degree, and we much preferred the term discovery writer.

This conversation seems to have uncorked something and it’s ten to nine on a Saturday morning, my house needs cleaning, there’s a cat on my foot but I need to set down a certain relation concerning a shiny new ship called the Fair Thomazine and the blustering shyster who’s allegedly had her on the blocks in the Blackwall Yards these last twelve months. (Henry “Surely Some Relation” Johnson, as it happens.) And it prompted me to think a bit more about how the book currently known as “Kitchen, Or, Russells 0.5” is being written. (Today is the anniversary of King Charles I’s execution, and someone has just passed the title of a 1649 pamphlet across my radar, and the book has quite literally just got a title – A Conscientious Exercise. You read it here first.)

There are bits of it, as I said to my friend, all over the damn’ place. Possibly even over two laptops, and that’s extreme. It had started as a short story that had been written because I wanted to know what happened – partly, as I often joke, because a certain crazy blond lieutenant still needed his Happy Ever After, but partly (and more reasonably) because there was unfinished business at the end of the Civil War series and that troubled me because I don’t like loose ends.

So there was going to be a theme to the series: that, if you like, was going to be the string of the necklace, the series was going to be set around the Russells’ courtship and marriage. And this is where the discovery-writing thing comes in: there was no way either of them were ever written to be conventionally romantic. That was always going to be in the background, but it wasn’t going to be – to continue the necklace metaphor – the pearls.

Sometimes I know what year the book is set – because chronologically it has to be, in their personal timeline: I know they weren’t in London during the Plague, for instance, and only tangentially involved in the Great Fire – and I can work backwards from there. What happened in 1671? Pick anywhere in Europe? And sometimes something will pop up on one of my social media feeds from one of my 17th century academic friends, a snippet of research, a name, a date, and I think – but what if….? And sometimes those things start out as just a couple of hundred words, or a scribble. One notebook per project, no order necessary, just bits and pieces of inspiration as they arrive which may – or may not – find their way into a Word document and be worked up into a scene. Which may – or may not – be then slotted into the working-draft copy, or may end up as the inspiration for a short story, or may end up being a whole new book in their own right, as they feel most fitted.

Thinking about it, I don’t think I am a pantser. I have a map in my head for the beginning and the end, and I’m led by the characters as to how they get there. I’d not like to be the author to dictate to Thomazine Russell that the plot dictates she must have an affair with another man, as an instance – she’d not, and that would be the end of that particular plot device: see you back at the drawing board! I’m not sure I’m entirely a discovery writer either because they’re not discoveries, they’re things I already know. I’m applying how I know my characters will react, to developing situations.

If anything I think I might be an organic writer, or a pearl writer (in my head, the Major does one of his unconvinced sniffs and says nothing, very pointedly, about oyster-snot) but things grow, organically, layer on layer. I can train ’em to grow in the direction I want, and sometimes I have to just let them grow as they see fit and prune them back into shape afterwards. I have a seed of a concept, and it turns into a thing over time, and it’s only once it’s become an actual thing that I can start working with it. I can’t make it coherent until it’s grown up enough to be independent, and I suspect Colonel Hollie would be drawing parallels with breaking in a young horse at this point. He’d get it. Sometimes you get what you get, and you have to stand back and let it grow a bit to see what it will be most fitted to become before you start trying to make it into something it maybe isn’t fitted to be.

All this being diversion, of course. I’m a pearl-writer, but the oyster is currently the Blackwall Yards in 1665 and my hero has an appointment with a coffee-house, an elderly Sicilian salami, and Henry Johnson Junior – in that order of importance.