Monday, 13 February 2017

The closure of George Stephenson's birthplace cottage

I have written to the Hexham Courant this week, adding to the voices protesting against the National Trust's recent and wrong- headed decision to close George Stephenson's birthplace at Wylam in Northumberland as a visitor attraction. I reproduce my letter below, and invite comment.

I always mention in my talks on the subject that a visit to George Stephenson's birthplace provided the inspiration that led me to three years' research on George and his family, culminating in my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret.

I remember as if it were yesterday standing in that one small room the family shared, awed with the thought that in these humble surroundings the boy that became the man who changed the world grew up. If it were not for that visit, I doubt that I would have ever embarked on the work.

By contrast, I remember that later in my researches I travelled to Dial Cottage in West Moor where George and his son Robert lived for many years, almost to the cusp of George's first great triumph, Locomotion Number One, which ushered in the world of public railways on the Stockton and Darlington line. In this cottage, too, Stephenson invented the miners' safety lamp (not Sir Humphry Davy as usually credited). I say, by contrast, because here, to my amazement I was faced with a locked door, an empty building and windows caked with dirt from the passing traffic on the Great Lime Road.

I remember wiping the dirt from the window to peer inside at bare floorboards and, sadly, an empty sherry bottle lying on its side, presumably left by a recent down-and-out squatter. I was furious that day, and have given vent to my anger loudly and often since.

Ironically, after years of campaigning, Dial Cottage (which has in more recent times provided accommodation for the local school caretaker) is set to open as a visitor attraction, as it deserves to be. Yet we are faced with the closure of the wonderful birthplace cottage at Wylam.

It's all too easy to quote dwindling visitor numbers after a long period of, at best, tepid marketing of an attraction. In any case, visitor numbers should not be the final measure, the harbinger of a decision to close. What is important here is the significance of the place. There is no-one in our region (and few in the nation) more significant than George Stephenson. It is not only desirable that we protect his roots and his legacy - it is imperative.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A contemporary's account of the railway pioneer George Stephenson

My writing of the historical novel Mr Stephenson's Regret has led to a number of interesting encounters and conversations, including many talks, particularly around the North East of England. This week, as I prepare for talks on the subject in Hartlepool and Darlington, one of the organizers kindly sent me an extract from a book she happens to have on her shelf. She describes the book as 'very fragile', and little wonder, it dates from 1853.

The extract she sent me was a brief biography of George Stephenson, contained in a book entitled Our coal and our coal-pits; the people in them, and the scenes around them: By a traveller underground, in two parts. I was immediately intrigued as this book had not surfaced in all my research when I was writing my novel. The date of publication puts the author as a near-contemporary of George, and certainly a contemporary of son Robert, and it must lay claim to being the first biographical account of the railway pioneer as it pre-dates by four years the famous biography written by the self-help author Samuel Smiles.

I've now researched further and discovered that the author was John R Leifchild, born in 1815, author of several non-fiction works in and of Victorian England. The publisher was Longman & Co and it was part of the Traveller's Library, a series in 25 volumes. At the time, Leifchild's book would have set you back two shillings and sixpence, or a shilling each if you bought the two parts separately. These days it is possible to buy a digitised reprint, if you are prepared to fork out anywhere between £60 and £90, which seems to be the going rate.

The chapter on Stephenson is full of interest, if a little mistaken on some of the personal details. The author claims, for example, that George's first wife, Frances Henderson, was the servant of the woman who refused him, Elizabeth Hindmarsh. Fanny was actually a servant, not at the Hindmarsh's Black Callerton Farm but at Red House Farm some distance away; and, far from refusing George, Betty Hindmarsh was devastated when her father would not allow her to marry the penniless pitman, and declared she would never marry anyone else. Of course, she did marry George eventually.

Anticipating Smiles, Leifchild entitles the chapter on George, 'Ascent of Pitmen in the Social Scale', and makes much of his triumph over adversity and lack of education. There is some fascinating incidental detail and an intimate feel to the writing which is fairly unusual for its time.

As the available reprints are so expensive, and as the book is well out of copyright, I have taken the liberty of re-scanning the chapter on George that was sent to me, and I reproduce it below as a contribution to Stephenson research, and because I think it will be of interest to many.



Monday, 14 March 2016

In search of the story

There are writers, good and bad, who are inveterate plotters, laying out their story-lines brick by brick before they cement them together with words. Agatha Christie, for example, famously plotted every element of her novels before she wrote a word of the manuscript. William Faulkner, the Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote story plans on his office wall. I've seen J K Rowling's complicated plot charts (hand-written grids aligning time, plot and prophecies in numbered scenes like a director’s shot list) and other writers' examples of mind maps and story boards.


I have to confess I've never done any of that in preparation for writing a novel. Although I might write copious notes during my research for a book, they tend to be about the world of the story; they are hardly ever about the story itself, the plot. The one highly structured thing I do as I'm going along is to write a time line just to ensure I don't bump the victim off on Friday only to have the body discovered the previous Wednesday.


I used to worry about my lack of a story plan, especially on the rare occasion I'd browse books or websites that offer advice and claim to improve our chances of being published. They always seem to emphasise how important it is to have a clear plot summary from start to finish before we get down to the serious business of writing, not to mention detailed profiles of all our important characters.


Oh, but it's all so tedious, and a large part of my reason for writing is to entertain myself. And the truth is I don't want to know from the start how the story ends or even much about what happens along the way. If I already know, where's the thrill in writing about it? I'm both the author and the first reader of my book. My drive to write the next chapter comes from wanting to find out what happens next. I hope my future readers will feel the same.


I stopped worrying when I noticed other writers whom I respect make do without detailed story plans. E L Doctorow, the author of Ragtime, said: 'Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' The best-selling author Stephen King wrote a whole book On Writing that resonates with me on every page. He says, 'I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted, any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.'


King talks about his preference for putting his characters in some sort of predicament, then watching to see how they work themselves free. His job isn't to help them work their way free or to manipulate them to safety but to watch what happens and write it down. That's how I set about my work too. In my fictional worlds my principal character will typically be involved in some form of escape or some form of search, often both. Escape and search can offer a multitude of possibilities. They lead me and my characters on ventures that are neither pre-planned nor random but unfold before us with varying degrees of difficulty, a network of tracks that is somehow already present but hidden by foliage that has, in metaphorical terms, to be hewn and navigated. Slowly we pick our way through. I've heard this called creative pattern recognition.


To reference Stephen King again, he likens writing to an archaeological dig. We come across something - Hmm, that looks interesting - and start to dig around it. Yes, there is something interesting there, let's find out more. Only with very careful graft using our writing tools can we get the whole thing out from somewhere deep beneath the surface. It's a delicate, often slow process because we want to keep our discovery as intact as possible. As in palaeontology some of the pieces may need to be rearranged, others restored, but eventually our find will be revealed in its entirety.


The process reminds me of something I read about the artist Michelangelo. When he was about to start a new sculpture he would stand in front of the shapeless stone staring into the rock until he felt he could see an image of the statue inside. All he then had to do was to chip away, chip away until the statue revealed itself. 'I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,' he wrote in his notebook.


For myself the chipping away at my text is directed by trying to answer a series of What if questions that emerge. What if? A very useful question for writers in search of story. The first What if, of course, kick-starts the action - people who write about creative writing call this the inciting event.


The writer’s What if moment can be sparked randomly from real life. I recently heard the crime writer Val McDermid describing just such a moment that sparked off the idea for her best-seller The Distant Echo. She was having coffee with a friend who told how her son, a medical student, was walking back with his friends from a night out when they came across another bunch of lads giving a good kicking to a youth on the ground. Being good middle class lads, they chased the bad guys away and, being medical students, they turned back to give the bloodied lad on the ground some assistance. Just then the police turned up. Luckily the victim was conscious and was able to explain to the police that these young guys had saved him.


When Val McDermid heard the story, immediately it became for her a What if moment. What if the youth on the ground was not conscious when the police turned up to find a bunch of drunken lads around him with blood on their hands? What if he were dead? Right there, Val had her inciting incident and the idea for her next novel.


Once the inciting event occurs much of one’s novel or story is devoted to the search the event impels. Or is it escape? Along the way a sub-plot slowly develops, seemingly separate at first, but eventually there is a kind of merging so that all become parts of the whole. There must be no manipulation about this on the part of the writer - it has to be done step by step because for the reader every step must seem inevitable.


We are in effect on a journey in company with our characters, just as our readers will eventually be. We may think we know your characters at the outset, but we don't. They will let us know more fully who they are as we move along together, just as real friends do on a long trip. Often they will take us to places we didn't know we were going, including a brothel in my novel 11:59 which is somewhere I'd like to assure you I've never been.


Some characters whom we might imagine are just incidental, with just a walk-on part, turn out to be fundamental to the course of the story. One of the great story-tellers JRR Tolkien confessed that he was in despair for a while during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. About a third of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring some ruffian named Strider confronts the hobbits in an inn. Tolkien had no idea who he was, where the book was going at this point, or what to write next. Turns out Strider is actually Aragorn, the uncrowned king of all the forces of good, who emerges as one of the principal characters in the book and whose restoration to rule is one of the main engines of the plot.


In my psychological mystery As Close As You Are To Me I found myself writing about a Big Issue seller with a stubble and a cowboy hat who calls himself Cody. He muscles his way into becoming a key character without as much as a by-your-leave. In 11:59 the anti-hero DJ Marc Niven has a sort of super-fan, Oliver, a lad with learning difficulties who lives with his mother. I had no thought, when I introduced him, of making Ollie perhaps the most important character aside from Marc and one that readers always tell me is their favourite. He just turned out that way.


The story in a novel is all-important - it's what keeps the reader engaged - but I believe an over-emphasis on plot when composing can lead writers to neglect their characters or make them simply one-dimensional conduits for the plot. If instead we allow the characters to lead the action, or rather allow both to develop in tandem, we should end up with more rounded characters and a fuller, more credible story. After all, that's how life is: we are not divided neatly into the bad guys and the good guys; we all think of ourselves as principal characters; we are not puppets in someone else's script.


Indeed there is, at least in my creed, no over-arching story in life, only those stories that we make through our own complexities, emotions, muddles, errors of judgement, insights and occasional acts of courage and selfless heroism. Whether in real life or in fiction, you could say that the stories are already there inside of us. We all have our ways of getting them out.
A shorter version of this article by David Williams appeared under the title 'The Angel in the Marble' in the magazine of The Society of Authors 'The Author' Spring 2016.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

If I Only Had Time

The current Winter issue of The Author (magazine of the Society of Authors) carries an article of mine under the heading Where Do You Get Your Ideas? The article is a slightly abridged version of one I originally titled If I Only Had Time. I thought you might like to see the full version of the article so I have included it below.

If I only had time

Imagine a patient saying to a doctor at the end of a consultation, 'I could have been a doctor you know, I've often thought about that, but somehow I never got round to it. I've never really had the time to do it.' Unlikely, yet substitute one profession for another - writer for doctor - and you'll find it happens a lot, or it does in my experience.

Time, apparently, is the only essential requirement for writing a book. Oh, and ideas, but they're no real obstacle. 'I've got a headful. The life I've had... The stories I could tell... If I only had the time to put them down I could have a best-seller. You should come round sometime, I'll give you plenty of ideas for your next book. You can pay me commission.'

I've perfected the strained smile on hearing these words - I'm sure every writer has - and I've learned the futility of counter-argument, though I'm often tempted to quote the late journalist and author Gene Fowler: 'Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.'

I guess for most people most professions - doctor, lawyer, banker - are a mystery, but writing is something we all do to a certain extent, if only to update our status on Facebook. And of course we've all done creative writing - the faded pages of the school exercise books still stacked somewhere in the loft are testament to a talent shown from an early age - so there's no mystery to it, and no anatomy to learn, or jurisprudence, or how to make sense of a balance sheet. Plus, you can read a book in a couple of days so how hard can it be to write one?

My urge to rage is sometimes strong: a sublimation of my inner demand to be given due credit for all the time (yes), ingenuity, craftsmanship and sheer bloody hard work (bordering on agony) that I've put into producing a book. I want to take the hapless reader through every page, every line, to deconstruct and forensically analyse, disinter the learning beneath, reveal the artist at work (how he plays with tone, colour, variation; how brilliantly he achieves balance and synthesis from thesis and antithesis); to hold my jewel to the light and have my reader marvel at its distilled beauty. Sorry, am I gripping your arm too tight?

Perhaps the real reason I do talks is not to sell my books (another oft-crushed hope) but to offer myself up for such examination, to lay myself open to questions that might begin: 'I was intrigued by the way you revealed motive without needing to express it directly in the words and thoughts of the lead characters - could you say more about how you achieved such a feat?' Unfortunately questions like that never occur. 'Where do you write?' 'How do you find a publisher?' Questions like that occur. And during the post-talk tea ritual, as I wait in shy expectation behind the pile of books that always turns out to be too optimistically high, people sidle up to tell me of their own frustrated literary ambitions. My excruciating chart-topper is the WI stalwart who said in all seriousness: 'I have a fantastic idea for a novel; all I'm missing is the words. Do you do ghost-writing?'

I am anticipating sympathetic tuts and nods from fellow writers, but as we close in our group hug maybe we are turning our backs on an essential truth, that the only real difference between us and the literary wannabes is that we actually have a book or two with our names on the cover. So what? What do any of us have a right to expect beyond a cursory nod of acknowledgement for the production of a new work, the equivalent of a pat on the head for the boy who has done his homework. Less perhaps, for at least the boy was given the homework by someone who demanded it. Whoever asked us to sit down at a desk and open a vein to write copiously in our own blood? Why should we complain about how difficult it is to write a book when many might prefer we found it impossible.

Has there ever been a banner headline that announced The world needs a new book? Of course not; there are millions on offer already, far more than the world could ever hope to read. In fact what my experience shows is that there may be more people out there with the vague ambition to write a book than those with any desire to read one. Or maybe they just don't have the time.

No. I can't let the cynic in me close this argument. I must reach for a reason, a justification for all those hours spent on squeezing out the words and shaping something meaningful from them. Maybe I shouldn't dismiss as unimportant the simple fact that so many others have thought about writing a book for themselves but have never done it. Their very number suggests there is a perceived status to being an author even if it's somewhat below being a professional footballer or appearing on The X Factor, among other favourites of the wishful thinker. And I should comfort myself with the notion that if people did not spend half their time wallowing in daydreams they might actually get around to producing something. So I'll continue smiling as I listen to another would-be-should-be-could-have-been, I'll even nod my head in a show of empathy while, in my mind only, I will say to my new friend: Keep dreaming the dream, but for pity's sake don't pick up the pen. We have quite enough competition as it is.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Funny things happen at talks

When I do talks and readings I set out to entertain the audience. They also amuse me on many occasions; here are just a few examples from the last couple of months.

Deep listening

I received an invitation from a Rotary Club to speak at their lunchtime meeting. We all enjoyed a good traditional lunch of roast beef and yorkshire pudding followed by custard and crumble washed down by some diners with generous glasses of red wine. After a smattering of Rotary business I was welcomed and stood for my talk. I noticed, within thirty seconds of starting, that one senior Rotarian near the front was fast asleep with his mouth open, snoring gently. I pressed on regardless and enjoyed a good response from members, evidenced by a lively Q & A directly after my talk and a round of applause that awoke the sleeping Rotarian. He was immediately called upon by the President to deliver the vote of thanks which he did with alacrity, a grateful smile and fulsome praise for my excellent presentation. One of the best he'd heard, apparently.

Book signing

I never presume that people want their books signed, always wait to be asked. One very enthusiastic lady asked me to write a message in the one she'd bought. 'Of course,' and I turned to the flyleaf with my pen poised, mentally composing something suitable for the occasion. She beat me to it, and started to dictate: 'Please write Happy birthday, my darling Gemma'. I wrote this down faithfully. 'Er, OK, you want me to sign this?' 'Yes, put Love from Grandma xxx' I added the line to her direction. 'Now do you want me to sign?' 'No, that'll be fine, thank you,' and she went off happily with her book.

Sure-fire best-seller

On a regular basis I have members of the audience coming up to me after talks to tell me that they too could have been a writer, but they never had the time to put pen to paper. My all-time excruciating favourite occurred recently after a talk to the WI. A woman in her eighties rushed up to the front to collar me. 'Do you do ghost-writing?' she asked in all seriousness. 'I've got some fantastic ideas for a novel. All I'm missing is the words.'

Monday, 13 October 2014

As Close As You Are To Me - The Cover Completed

As a follow-up to my last on briefing the artist and reviewing the cover image in progress, here is the completed though low-res version of the front cover for 'As Close As You Are To Me'.

I'm very pleased with how the artist Peter Fussey has handled the brief. Particularly I like the treatment of the girl's hair (Alex, the lead character who observes the girl, notes especially the way the wind slightly lifts her fine, blonde hair to reveal her Maltese Cross earring), the water (always difficult to achieve in illustration - this looks fab in hi-res), and the slight scruffiness of the grass and paving, so typical of a city park. Peter has also answered my concerns about the title text possibly obscuring the image by providing a light, open font that remains clear for the reader without masking the image in any way.

Not much left for the publisher to do now. We are on track for a publication launch date of 6th November. Hope you'll bear me in mind when visiting your favourite local or on-line bookshop.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

As Close As You Are To Me - The Cover Emerges

One of the most exciting phases in the production of a new book is your first glimpse of the cover art, especially when your publisher uses the services of such a talent as Peter Fussey, who also created my covers for 11:59 and Mr Stephenson's Regret.

Coming up with a brief for the artist can be tricky because the idea is not merely to create an attractive cover but to produce an image that will say something about the story inside and send some subtle sensory signals about the book as a whole. It's especially tricky for a psychological mystery, which the novel is, because you don't want inadvertently to provide a 'spoiler' with the choice of image, though you do hope to tease the reader's interest.

For this one I felt we should produce a telling image from the first scene in the novel, which is where the inciting incident lies. The central character Alex is in a city park, in a state of abstraction. He is brought to a sort of stunned consciousness by the appearance of his daughter walking alone through the park. Why the surprise? Ruth has been dead for over a year.

Here is the brief I gave to the artist:

I suggest the cover artwork refers to the first scene in the book, where Alex sees 'Ruth' in the park, though the viewpoint I'm proposing takes us closer to the girl than he would have been from his position on the park.  

An unseasonably warm early October day in the park. We see in the foreground, as if we were just about able to reach out and touch her, the head-and-shoulders back view of a young girl of 19-20 walking through the park. We can tell she is attractive ('Swedish-looking'; think a young Agnetha from ABBA) but we can see little of her face beyond a cheekbone and her ear beneath her wispy blonde hair, lifted slightly by the breeze. She is wearing a silver Maltese Cross earring with rounded edges on the cross-pieces and a couple of short silver links, just enough for the earring to dangle slightly. (No need to make the earring too obvious as long as it's there.) She is wearing a simple green coat and we may just be able to see that she is carrying a shouldered handbag with a single strap. She has a simple but elegant affluence about her.

I'm not sure how much of the park we may be able to see in the background, but if possible it would be good to see the suggestion of a fountain in the distance (think Trafalgar Square fountain but very much scaled down to city park size). In the story the girl runs her fingers through the waters of the fountain as she passes, so the surface level would be at a height for her to do that comfortably.

If it's difficult for perspective reasons to get the fountain into the background I'm not too concerned - much more interested in getting the girl right; she is very much the focus of the picture, and we need to feel the presence of the unseen observer. 

Peter concentrated first on the girl, and a few days ago sent me this sketch:

I was very pleased with it - very close to my mental image of 'Ruth'. The only concern I had for a while is that we see Ruth from the rear left. In my text the girl appears from the left of where Alex is sitting in the park, and just as she enters his peripheral vision makes a turn to her left and walks away from him. Following the logic of the text we should be seeing the girl from behind her right shoulder. Peter offered to 'flip' the image but as I reconsidered I realised it is better to have the image turned 'into' the cover rather than facing out of it. As it happens, I was checking the publisher's proof at this time. My solution? A minor redraft to have the girl entering from the right of Alex in he park. Some of you may consider me very anal retentive to insist the cover image follows the logic of the narrative exactly, and of course I am aware that 99% of readers would never notice this detail, but it would bother me forever.

Peter has now almost finalised the image and has sent me this near-complete version to check

I really like this and hope the readers will too. Peter told me he planned to add some people around the fountain but I have asked him not to - I'm sure that would distract from our subject; as I said in my brief I really want the girl to be the focus of the composition.

The only concern I have now is where the title and author name will go. My previous Wild Wolf novels have had my name running over the top of the image and the title running across the bottom. That worked for the previous covers but I think we may need some extension of scenery here so that the name does not obscure the head of the girl. I've raised this with the artist and I'm sure he'll come up with a good solution.

So the proofs have been checked and the cover almost done. 'As Close As You Are To Me' is scheduled for publication by the end of October. We may be a week or so out but it will certainly be in the shops in good time for Christmas. I hope you have it on your list.