Writing About Writing: People

When I was a teenager I remember reading somewhere that an author – quite a famous one, I think – had to write. I can remember at the time I cringed. It sounded so precious and so pseudo-sensitive. Then, as the years have rolled by, I’ve found that I too, have to write. I’m not convinced that I have (italics) to, but the urge has grown pretty strong, nonetheless. I think it began back in 1989 when Peter Kemmis-Betty, who was then the Commissioning Editor for Batsford Books asked me to write-up Flag Fen as part of a new series of popular books he was doing in conjunction with English Heritage. That book appeared in 1991 and is still available, although in an up-dated and revised form. While I was writing I found myself heading-off in all sorts of unexpected directions and the manuscript I eventually provided was far too long, and required fairly drastic editing. But I’d had a whale of a time writing it.

Throughout the mid-1990s, my time was totally taken up with the writing-up of two major excavations, first the Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Etton and then Flag Fen itself, which was eventually published in 2001. As soon as I had finished writing the massive Flag Fen volume for English Heritage, the timber circle at Holme-next-the-Sea turned up and this became the focus for a book about the Bronze Age that I had in fact already started. By this time I was in the process of acquiring a Literary Agent, the excellent Bill Hamilton of the old-established firm A.M. Heath and Co. Bill still handles my writing with quiet tact and diplomacy. It was Bill who oversaw my Seahenge book and arranged for it to be published by HarperCollins, for whom I then wrote the four-volume Britain series.

But back in 1997 I had begun to keep an e-diary, which eventually transformed itself into this blog. One day I’ll post a series of its entries (which I quoted in the Seahenge book, incidentally). That diary, and latterly this blog, helped me stay in practice as a writer and made it very much easier to start work on my detective story, The Lifers’ Club, which took me over two years to write and went through no less than twelve separate drafts, before Bill was at all satisfied with the end result. So don’t let anyone tell you that writing fiction is somehow easier than the supposedly factual stuff.

I’m sometimes asked about the people who appear in the book: ‘Is old Mike in it?’ My normal reply is a bit ambiguous: ‘yes, bits of him are…’ Then, depending on age and gender there’s a brief exchange, rich in innuendo,  about which particular bits. In actual fact, of course, whole people never appear, because as soon as they start to act independently, they do so in their own, particular way. To use a cliché, the character takes over; but the trouble is, this isn’t always consistent. Indeed, I had minor characters change their names, age and sex before I learnt the discipline of keeping a detailed cast list, complete with potted biographies.

Everyone who has read early drafts of the book has assumed that my lead character, Alan Cadbury, is based on myself, but some thirty years younger (for what it’s worth, he was born on January 2nd, 1971). He may have been, when I first had the idea, but he’s changed a great deal over the past two years. In fact I don’t carry a very clear picture of him in my head. In that respect he’s rather like my friends in real life, many of whom I’ve known since student days. Do I think of them as they are today, as husbands or wives, fathers, even grand-fathers, and mothers, or as boozy students sozzled on beer, or dope, and lying spark-out on the banks of the River Cam one sultry June afternoon in 1967? Or maybe a cross between all of them (God help us)? In other words, the pictures in my mind reflect the context of the thought, or the memory. And Alan Cadbury was in many places on many occasions and he certainly wasn’t always consistent. In that respect, he has more in common with Rebus than with Sherlock Holmes.

And that’s why I’ve tried to avoid detailed descriptions of him. Readers will discover bits (that word again!) and pieces about him as they read: for example, he has a beard; but then he might decide to shave it off. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

So is that what people mean when they say that characters ‘come alive’? I’ve always found that when I see a film about a book I’ve loved, that the main characters get replaced by the actors’ faces – and then rapidly replace my own pictures, and then equally rapidly die-out altogether. That’s why I won’t re-view pictures like Tom Jones, having re-read Henry Fielding’s magnificent original novel. I don’t know how I’d react if somebody wanted to make a film of The Lifers’ Club. In that highly unlikely event, I think I’d have to be prepared to lose my awkward, obsessive friend, because that’s what he has become, and instead picture the film’s leading actor.

Anyhow, we’re approaching 50% funding and I’m back at my desk. I’m also making very good progress with my non-fiction book for Penguin, which incidentally, has gained a great deal from the writing of The Lifers’ Club. Strangely Alan Cadbury stalks its pages behind the scenes, a ghostly mysterious presence. And if anyone tries to tell you that fiction and non-fiction can be easily separated, they are talking out of the back of their necks. Personally, I can’t tell them apart – and that’s something I offer future academic critics of my factual work on a plate, free of charge.

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