Writer’s Traffic Jam

You would have thought that after 71 years on this planet I might have learned something about planning my life. But, no. Things still creep up on me and my best laid plans go awry. As a gardener and farmer I often have to blame the weather, and it has been the wettest, windiest winter I can recall. I only finished digging the vegetable garden at the start of the last week in January – normally it’s the end of the old year – and I completed the cutting back of the pleached lime trees on February 1st – a job I usually finish in the week after Christmas. And all of that is down to the fact that you can’t dig sodden soil, nor rest a ladder on a lawn that’s more mud than grass. But by way of compensation, the snowdrops were out before Christmas and there are early daffodils (February Gold – a lovely, delicate variety) in flower, both in the garden and in vases indoors. Yesterday, I picked tender young spinach, which would normally be burnt off by winter frosts; and the parsley is as fresh and green as in high summer. Hell, I’m starting to write a gardening post: back to the point.

In early January, I decided to switch back to Apple, after many years with Windows. My very first computer, which I bought in 1978 was an Apple 2, which I bought with 16k RAM. On my last trip back to Canada (I then worked at The Royal Ontario Museum), later that year, I bought another 16k of microchips when I stopped-off in Boston on my way home, from Toronto. I would have to have paid Customs Duty on them at Heathrow, so I smuggled them into Britain in my socks, and my friend Ian Grahame, the computer whizz at the Institute of Archaeology (now UCL) in London, plugged them into the Apple’s motherboard. I remember Ian took off his shoes and socks to avoid any static. All very dramatic. But it worked, and our project now possessed a 32k RAM computer – larger than anything at Peterborough Tech!!! It had double 5 ¼-inch floppy disk drives and I’m telling you it was very Hi-Tec. But there was no data-base software available, so we had to write our own, which we called Maxarc (the site we were then digging was Maxey) and Ben Booth (who worked it all out) even wrote it up in The Journal of Archaeological Science. So there! But again, I’m digressing.

A couple of years ago I bought an iPad mini, which took a little getting used to, but which I now love. The thing is, it didn’t spend all its time downloading updates to its security software, unlike my old Windows machines. So far, my MacBook Pro works fine, although all things Apple have come a long way since my Apple 2. I think I’ll have learnt to drive it half competently in six months’ time. Anyhow, my creakiness on the new computer has slowed me down a bit (I’m writing this, incidentally, on the MacBook). Then, to complicate matters further, something slightly unexpected had happened a few weeks earlier.

Late last summer my agent, Bill Hamilton, was contacted by a relatively new publishing house called Head of Zeus who were producing a series of Landmark books about well-known places and events. The first, by Dan Jones, was Magna Carta and the second, by Suzannah Lipscomb, The King is Dead, is about Henry VIII and his will. Bill knew about the series and was very impressed: the writing was lively, but well informed. They weren’t too long, either, but they also had good notes and useful appendices. But their two big features were the high standard of production, design and colour illustration, plus an unbeatable price – and they are only published in hardback. Anyhow, to get to the point, they asked if I’d be interested in writing a book about Stonehenge? Was I interested – I almost bit their hands off! Of course I was interested: any prehistorian has to be fascinated by Stonehenge. I’ve visited it dozens of times. But then, quite rapidly, I came to my senses.

The thing is, the past fifteen or so years have seen a massive surge of research into Stonehenge. In fact it has barely been off our television screens for more than a week or two, as the recent excellent documentary on BBC4 (presented by Alice Roberts) so ably demonstrated. By far and away the most revealing insights have been produced by Mike Parker Pearson and his team on the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Incidentally, Mike has produced two excellent popular books, Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery (Simon and Schuster, 2012) and Stonehenge: Making Sense of a Prehistoric Mystery (Council for British Archaeology, 2015). But I couldn’t possibly write such a book without getting Mike’s blessing first. So, very tentatively, I approached him and I determined not to go ahead if I detected even the slightest hesitation. But there wasn’t any. In fact he bombarded me with links and offprints to use when I started. That’s one of the reasons I love our subject: it’s the people, not the finds (but try telling that to the treasure-hunting brigade!).

So I sat down at my desk and started work. Head of Zeus wanted quite a short book, of just 25,000 words (my Home book, for example is about four times that). But I knew I had to digest a lot of information and somehow make it a good read, too. And I knew that wasn’t going to be easy. It would have to be quite a concentrated style of writing, but at the same time it had to flow and keep the reader intrigued.

Normally when I used to write academic reports, I could often manage up to three thousand words a day. All my attention would go into making them accurate and clear and I spent less time trying to couch them in flowing language. Then, when I started writing more popular books I found I could normally manage about 1,500 words a day, and with fiction it has dropped to 1,000, although I rarely work for more than three hours, now that I have a farm and large garden to maintain.

So I started work on Stonehenge late in October and soon found that if I was lucky a three-hour session produced just 500 words. On some days I’d be happy with 300! It was that concentrated. Everything mattered, right down to individual commas. By the time I’d finished the first draft, shortly before Christmas, I was ready for a stiff glass of something fizzy – and I may even have had two.

I don’t yet have a publication date for Stonehenge, but I would imagine it’ll be in the autumn, although often these days’ publishers like to release new books after Christmas, to get away from the celeb rubbish and other ‘gifty’ books. This also applies to my second Alan Cadbury book*, which is now on hold while I edit Stonehenge. The thing is, it took me so long to get my mind into the complexity of the subject, that I want to finish the project entirely, before I try to think about anything else. And it always takes me a few days to get my head into fiction mode.

As things currently stand, we have arranged that I’ll send a fully tweaked and edited manuscript of The Way, The Truth and The Dead* to my editor, Liz Garner, at Unbound, by March 20th, the day we start lambing. Then she can work on it, while I slip into my ovine charge-nurse role. Once lambing’s over, I’ll have to respond to Liz’s edits, which will probably take a week or two. Incidentally, Isobel Frankish, the Managing Editor at Unbound tells me that I’m currently the only one of their authors who keeps sheep. John Mitchinson (one of the three co-founders of Unbound) of course keeps pigs, but I think everyone is agreed that pictures of woolly lambs trump snorting snouts every time. So my sheep photos always go down very well in the Unbound office. Sadly, we won’t have any lambs till March, so here’s a picture of their expectant mums in the barn, in the background they’re feeding on the hay we made last summer. And here, too, is an interesting fact: sheep have very sweet-smelling, odourless breath, unless they are having trouble bearing twin lambs, when suddenly a perceptive shepherd will detect a slight hint of acetone on the air. You then have to get close and personal with every ewe, sniffing their breath. And if looks of disdain could kill…

These Lleyn ewes will lamb after March 20th. The coloured marks show their male bloodlines. This is important to avoid inter-breeding.

These Lleyn ewes will lamb after March 20th. The coloured marks show their male bloodlines. This is important to avoid inter-breeding.

Slightly later, and by now we’ll be well into the summer, we’ll have to think about a cover design. With any publisher the process of editing, designing and printing a book takes from 6-8 months. It’s something that can’t be rushed, and most writers don’t want to: the look and feel of a book has a big effect on its sales. I’ve spoken to the management folk at Unbound and they have big reservations about trying to publish before Christmas. January and February tend to be rather dead months for book launches, which generally happen in the spring. So as things currently stand, it looks like your copy of The Way, The Truth and The Dead will be thudding onto your doormat sometime in the spring of 2017, although of course subscribers will get their copies well before the book is released to the book-trade. I’m only too aware that this must seem like a very long time, but I’m afraid these things can’t be rushed: good books take time to happen, even in our world of instant gratification.

And while I’m on the subject of writing, I’m currently thinking about Alan Cadbury’s third adventure and a follow-up to my HOME book for Penguin. I’ll probably write the HOME follow-up first, as I find I need much time for my sub-conscious to mull over Alan’s plots. Since I’ve been creating his world and circle of friends, they’ve taken on lives of their own and I now find I can’t hurry things along: they have to take their time, if everyone is to remain true-to-character. I simply can’t imagine how so many authors – and good ones, at that – manage to churn out books every few months. I know it must sound strange, having just announced that The Way, The Truth and The Dead won’t be appearing for just over a year, but I’m really looking forward to writing Alan’s third adventure. He’s been telling me about it – and it’s not very pleasant. Quite nasty, in fact.

*The Way, The Truth and The Dead is fully funded but you can still support it and get your name in the back by pledging on the Unbound website.

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