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Sunday, 4 November 2012

Starting a new book you enter a world which is without form, and void. It's Genesis all over again.


Before catching up of the last few days, a word about Halloween, which I dismissed as a lot of nonsense imported from America. I was corrected by A., who told me that when she was being brought up - by her very correct Scottish parents - Halloween was quite the tradition. It involved such traditional games as plucking apples from a bucket of water with your hands behind your back and eating treacle flavoured buns from strings, likewise handicapped - both of which we did on Wednesday night. Back in those days there were very few pumpkins about. She and her friends, and her siblings, would be sent off with a knife to hollow out what they call a turnip but I call a swede. Purple skin, orange flesh. I should imagine that that would keep any ten-year-old busy for most of the day.

So much for the early part of the week. During the latter part the house echoed to the sound of lengthy sighs. And, yes, they were mine. I believe I also muttered, grumbled and stomped around the place. It’s very often the case when a new book is under way. Everything in your mind is new - settings and characters, for a start - and all sorts of issues are undecided. It’s hard to write a simple paragraph without stumbling across unresolved issues to do with settings, characters, even tone of voice. A writer starting out on a new book basically inhabits a world that is without form, and void. Cast your mind back to the book of Genesis….

In the case of the Mike Pannett books we are, of course, dealing with the factual rather than fiction - but in many ways that throws up the same sort of challenges that confront a novelist. In all of these books I have had to invent just about every character other than our main man - sometimes based on people Mike has described to me, in one or two cases based on people I’ve actually met. But in order for me to be able to write convincingly about them they have, in the end, to be ‘my’ characters. So the narrative becomes a sort of fictional construct, albeit one based on actual events and in every case being utterly faithful to police procedure. Then there are the settings. In the North Yorkshire books we felt obliged to relocate many of the incidents in order to disguise the identities of the people involved. We’re talking here about farm suicides, burglaries, house fires, fatalities and so on. And of course Mike spends a lot of his time as countryside officer cruising around his part of Yorkshire. It was almost entirely up to me to decide upon settings, most of which would, naturally, be places I knew intimately. And in some cases such as specific cottages or farmyards, yes, I made them up - although I would say that they were almost always based on places I knew.

What all this means is that for all of these books I have to invent a lot of people and make them credible, and come up with locations that feel real. So far I am floundering. No sooner had I started than I remember that Mike needs an inspector, a couple of sergeants, and a few fellow officers for his regular shifts - some old sweats, some raw recruits like himself. Add in some of the people he would meet on his daily patrol - a market trader or two, a cafĂ© proprietor, the cleaner at the section house where he lodges, and so on - and you can see that I have quite a job at this early stage. In North Yorkshire, by the time I got to books three and four (of the five) most of my peripheral characters were well established and I could whistle one up any time I wanted to enliven a scene or give Mike a bit of down-time on his beat. I knew them. They were real to me. In these early chapters of the new book (or books - we await news on that) I’m having to grow them from scratch as each story unfolds. So... it’s tough going just now. Nevertheless, by digging in on Friday and sticking at it until late in the day, I dragged the word count up to almost 4000 for the week. And that felt good. They may not have been the best 4000 words I’ve ever written, but I always contend that if you have material on the page in front of you you can improve it. If you’ve nothing - well, you’re in trouble.

So, the end of another week. We were up early this morning and off to the woods - the ones which overlook the University of Durham’s sports centre. We had decided to join the Friends of Pelaw Woods, a group which meets monthly to do small-scale conservation work.  Armed with spades, saws, loppers and a few other tools, we picked litter, tidied brambles away from the footpaths, repaired a couple of steps, and used some massive, sawn-off sections from a fallen beech tree to create a circle of wooden seats in a clearing just off the pathway. Then to the pub for a pint and a natter.

The sun has set, there’s a frost in the air, and I need to think about the week ahead.