Updated: Jul 23, 2021
Standing on the shoulders of giants - aka research rabbit holes
As I write this, I’m on the verge of being an author published by Penguin Random House, and that fact is the biggest in the room. It pulses with clarity. There is no fuzziness or ambivalence. I'm an agented writer with a 2-book publishing deal with one of the major publishing houses. That’s all we need to know.
Only, it’s not. The gleaming fact of my publishing deal has a clarifying effect on everything around it, as if this was the inevitable end of a clearly defined path. As if it was all a matter of time and I can joke about being a late bloomer but of course it was coming. While it’s true that I always had a sense that this would happen for me at some point - that there was nothing else I really wanted - the fact remains that there are many people who have that sense, to whom it doesn’t happen. There are so many deserving writers with wonderful stories who never sign that traditional publishing deal. And until it happened to me, it hadn’t.
As an author, you quickly learn that you have to know how to talk about your book. You have to be able to answer that seemingly innocuous question, ‘so what’s your book about?’ in a succinct sentence or two, without stumbling or veering off into subplot or irrelevant detail. You have to hone your ideas about theme and inspiration and authors you admire, to reward those who interview you or listen to you on a panel. You have to package up yourself and your writing journey so that it is interesting, and relevant, and occasionally amusing, even if much of it was none of those things.
The thing is - this is a very different skill set to imagining worlds into being. That curly, porous thinking that lets one idea seep messily into another, flaring into an image or snatch of dialogue, only to be jerked away by the memory it triggers, does not serve you well at this time. If you lumber after some half-cocked concept, or trail off before finishing a coherent thought, you won’t be asked back on a panel or podcast. Which is not to say that the glossy author self you (hopefully) see up there talking with passion and clarity about their book is not authentic, but rather that it is not complete.* It’s not the whole story but a neat synopsis of the bits you need to know.
This book, today beautifully packaged up with Tony Palmer’s gorgeous artwork, has a long and rollercoaster history. I first had an idea for a book where London was a character more than a decade ago, when I was living there and my kids were small. It started out as rhyming couplets and my kids were the protagonists. There was magic and lots of word play and it was fun. Time and Greenwich were central right from the start and as the story developed (and became prose), Ava soon emerged as the main character, and Jack close behind. It was a while before I settled on where she fit into the story - was she from Donlon? Was she one of the Seven Sisters? How was she connected to the Green Witch? I explored lots of different answers to this question and I have many, many versions of this story saved in my folders going back over the years.
It was playful and camp in some versions, and contemporary at the beginning. It was a project I tinkered with for a bit when I had a new idea, then put to the side for long periods. I finally got serious about this as a book that I needed to hone my craft on around 2013, when I did the excellent Self Editing your Novel course with Debi Alper and Emma Darwin and knuckled down to finally finish the story. I submitted the book as it then was to competitions and publishers and collected many rejections. From one of these came some useful feedback in October 2016 that sparked an idea:
‘But by and large the more unusual settings were the ones that stood out, especially those in which the setting was integral to the plot. ‘Historical stories tended to be better explored, more original,’ was one comment. ‘I liked it when the writer seemed knowledgeable about the strange world they were creating,’ was another. These comments suggest to me that a light rewrite with a fresh setting might be something you might consider.’
My setting was definitely integral to the plot and the idea of an historical setting sparked an ‘aha’ moment for me. Things fell into place quickly after that. I went down the rabbit holes of research and soon settled on Victorian London as being the place this book belonged. Part of me worried that Victorian London was so DONE as a setting - surely the most documented period in London’s history? Not only literature and film adaptations, thanks to Dickens, but also the social expansion of this time, and the woman who presided over it all, the vast empire and the impact that had all over the world, which still reverberates today - it is so present in our collective awareness for so many reasons. Could I really bring something new to this period?
But what kept prodding me was how that London would have seemed at the time to people living through it. How different that would have been to how we see it, looking back, shrouded in nostalgia and Dickensian cobwebs. It was the most incredible time of development - the biggest city the world had ever seen. Building projects dizzying in concept and size. Technology so extraordinary it verged on magic, like the telegraph. Energy, uncertainty, magic and science rubbing shoulders, extremes of poverty and wealth, brutality and wonder.
And time. For the first time, time was regulated and centralised, thanks to the railways, and brought into people’s lives. Greenwich was the centre of time. The huge expansion of working London meant that commuters flooded in by the thousands every day, and clocked on and off. London was fast and fierce and you had to be one step ahead to survive. A crisis around time belonged here.
And so the ‘light rewrite’ began. I went deep down rabbit holes learning as much as I could about this period, which of course is fascinating, and did much reading that will never make it onto the page but helped created the story ‘weather’ while I was writing. It felt right, as if I’d finally slotted a peg into the hole it was made for. Suddenly the story expanded and also slotted into the confines of history, with real events and people creating turning points for the fiction.
It was exhilarating to weave the two together and the distance of history gave me another facet to play with - our own relationship with our past and the significance of events as they can only be known after the passage of time. When you’re living through something, it’s just life. It’s only afterwards you can judge its true impact on the world. There is a sense of inevitability about written history - that it could only have happened that way. Of course there were always turning points where things could have gone either way and it was fun to insert my story in among them.
The big challenge was playing with all these heady ideas and possibilities and also developing a solid, satisfying story for the reader. It was hard to choose just one narrative strand to follow. Even now, editing book 2, I’m beating away all the subplots wanting their place in the sun. But once I’d settled on the historical idea there was no turning back. I pitched the idea in the historical setting before I started writing it, to gauge its ‘legs’, and that was the first time I got both an agent and a publisher to sit up and take notice - but that’s a story for the next blog.
* Speaking strictly for myself - other authors may well be as glossy on the inside as they are on the out.