Death Comes to the Fens for a Second Time…

Dear reader, if you haven’t guessed from the title of this blog post, I have finished writing the second Alan Cadbury mystery. I’ve learned a great deal about fiction-writing over the past year and this time the process of producing the manuscript didn’t take a dozen drafts, as The Lifers’ Club did. But the process of writing wasn’t perfect by any means, if by perfect you mean, did it go entirely according to plan? Well the answer to that is, it didn’t. In fact the book acquired a life of its own: a villain turned out to be less villainous and the latter chapters kept surprising me with new and entirely unexpected things. It was all very odd. I also made some entirely new mistakes.

For a start, I under-estimated how time-consuming the Unbound subscription process would be. Having said that, all the nice people at Unbound now assure me that it won’t be quite so laborious the second time around. Believe that, if you will. Second, the editorial process was quite extended, but this was almost entirely because I was new to fiction and didn’t really understand the subtleties and complexities of plot-construction; I was also a bit naïve when it came to human motivation – which doubtless reflects my own rather straightforward view of the world. Maybe that’s why I hate, loathe and detest the behind-the-scenes intricacies of academic inter- and intra-departmental politics – which I’ve tried to steer clear of all my life. No, I think my main problem in 2014 was in time-tabling my work. So no sooner had I resumed writing the second Alan Cadbury (which for brevity I’ll call AC2) than I went off to film in Italy. Then I got re-started just in time to be greeted by the editing and proofs for HOME. I had only just got re-re-started, when I was overtaken by the HOME launch campaign, plus the autumn literature festivals, where both Lifers and HOME seemed to have gone down very well. Eventually I finished the first draft of AC2 on November 13th. I then did a couple of weeks on the farm before I read through the manuscript, tweaking it here and there. Only then did I send it off to my Editor, Liz Garner.

So this time around, I intend to handle things a bit more astutely – or at least that’s the plan. But already I’m hitting snags, because like the complete fool I am, I’ve had the idea for another non-fiction book, which I plan to be lighter in tone than HOME, but with a serious underlying theme, nonetheless. I also plan to write it in collaboration with a co-author. But more on that later. And of course I’m also thinking about AC3 which will be the third of what is shaping-up to be a Fenland Trilogy for Alan Cadbury. I’m still not certain where AC will be heading thereafter, if, that is, he manages to survive AC3, but perhaps I’ll know around Christmas 2015. Maybe he’ll settle down (with whom?) and tend his garden in suburban security, somewhere. Or maybe not. But whatever actually transpires, 2015 looks like being just as unplanned, ungovernable and chaotic as 2014 – for both AC and FP. And finally, and to make matters even worse, I’ll be trying to make sense of everything as I set out on my eighth decade on this planet. Or to put it another way, I’ll be 70 in a few days’ time – which is odd, as I currently feel about 85.

So what is the second Alan Cadbury book about? It’s title doesn’t give much away, but is, I hope, slightly menacing, if not actually evil: The Way, The Truth and the Dead. Sadly I can’t divulge the plot, other than to concede that it was the Bishop with the cleaver (and the mistress in Morocco) who did it – in the library, of course. Apart from that, the action takes place in the southern Fens, in a small hamlet called Fursby, a few miles from Ely, on the Littleport road. We are in the Black Fens –thus named because of the region’s dark peat soils. It’s a part of Fenland that I love, but it’s very, very different from the silt Fens further north. For a start, there really are hills – proper ones that you can look up to. The small city of Ely is on one end of a long, undulating ridge, which extends westwards to the large villages of Haddenham and Sutton. Encircling these hills, which would have been true islands in pre-drainage days, the fields are a deep dark and golden black, especially when lit by the low amber sun of a winter’s evening.

Like other Fenland landscapes, the Black Fens were very attractive to prehistoric, Romano-British and early medieval communities. Monastic settlers were also an important feature and history books tell us that they were attracted by the bleakness and isolation of the Fens. I suspect that lonely, cold image was what they wanted to portray. In reality, Fenland abbeys, such as Ely and Peterborough, were some of the richest in Britain – and I don’t think it should come as a surprise that two of the other hugely rich foundations, at Westminster and Glastonbury were both sited in marshy landscapes. Those old monks knew a thing or two when it came to PR – and economics, too.

A view of Ely Cathedral, looking towards the magnificent medieval ‘lantern’. The Cathedral was originally a Benedictine Abbey, which was founded by St. Etheldreda in 673.

A view of Ely Cathedral, looking towards the magnificent medieval ‘lantern’. The Cathedral was originally a Benedictine Abbey, which was founded by St. Etheldreda in 673.

Anyhow, Alan Cadbury finds himself running an excavation at Fursby, but it’s no ordinary dig. The archaeology is outstanding, and soon its fame gets to the ears of people in television. Much of the book’s action takes place ‘live’ and on-screen. Those scenes were a lot of fun to write and I’ve tried to capture some of the adrenalin and tension of a live broadcast.

AC2 has given me a great excuse to visit Ely ‘for research’. Sometimes I drive, but in winter the great washes between the Old and New Bedford Rivers (which I discuss in The Making of the British Landscape) are flooded and it becomes far quicker to go by train. The line passes close by the great nature reserve at Welney Wash, which is famous for its huge population of whooper swans, which pass over our house on their migratory route northwards, later in the spring. I love the sound they make as they fly overhead: it’s so conversational; rather like they were chatting to one another.

Despite its proximity to Cambridge and the construction of some vast new housing estates around its fringes, Ely still manages to retain its unique character. It’s a great place to eat and drink – everything from haute cuisine to fish-and-chips. And the independent bookshop, Toppings, is superb – in fact it’s where we’ve chosen to launch AC2, on the evening of January 20th. I’ll be there doing a talk and signing Lifers’ Club and HOME, so do please come along if you possibly can. It promises to be a convivial evening!

A view of Welney Washes when partially flooded. The huge ‘washes’ between the two 17th century canalised courses of the River Ouse are intended to flood, thereby relieving pressure on the river’s outfall into the Wash, at Denver, in Norfolk.

A view of Welney Washes when partially flooded. The huge ‘washes’ between the two 17th century canalised courses of the River Ouse are intended to flood, thereby relieving pressure on the river’s outfall into the Wash, at Denver, in Norfolk.

The RSPB Welney Washes Nature Reserve is one of the most important habitats in Europe for migratory species, such as thousands of mute and whooper swans.

The RSPB Welney Washes Nature Reserve is one of the most important habitats in Europe for migratory species, such as thousands of mute and whooper swans.

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