A Writing Challenge: the thinking behind ‘A Place That Was Ours’.

In the Wear Valley of County Durham, there is a town called Bishop Auckland, and Bishop Auckland has a bridge.   A one-time viaduct, it bore the weight of rail traffic emanating from the coal and ore producing mines of the upper valley.  Now it is a road bridge.  The mines are gone, but the isolated communities that fed them with labour remain; villages without hearts, fossils of an extinct culture slowly re-establishing themselves as satellites to the cities.  It is this society, or an aspect of it, which forms the backcloth for ‘A Place that was Ours’.

The bridge was my start point for ‘A Place that was Ours’.   In fact, my working title for the first chapter was ‘The Bridge’.   The whole novel is a challenge to me and my philosophy that a writer, in composing a book should avoid planning as much as possible.

Let me explain.  This philosophy is not new.  I am not a planner.  In the past, though, I have always had a basic idea of how my plot would run, and the genre (how I hate that word) into which it should fit.  I retained two luxuries; I could trash the whole thing if it did not ‘work’, and I could ‘mess around’ with the completed project – introduce flashbacks, alter characters, eliminate inconsistencies, and so on.  And then, of course, I had the ability to edit; all before I offered the result as a completed book.  In my view, this is an easy way out and there are dangers implied.

I have a hard drive full of discontinued first chapters that could have been finished works, had I committed myself to them.  I have a book I completed years ago, so full of alterations, superimposed characters and corrections the original vision I had is lost, and so, by implication, is the book.

Not this time, not this book.  All the fun, all the adventure is back.  My characters are taking me where they want to go, not where I elect to put them.  I am posting each chapter as I write it.  There is no fully honed work waiting in the wings, to be transcribed episode by episode.  Chapter Five at the moment is only two paragraphs long.

I had – or have – no basic idea to work from.  I started with a bridge, the bridge depicted above.  That was the only solid element to work from.  I had no characters: two kids I saw walking up the road past my house became Chas and Sue, the rest of the dramatis personae have gathered around them naturally as friends and family will do.   A first trap, because writing so freehandedly invites a huge cast.  I am tempted to add someone new each time a situation seems to require it, whereas any theatre producer will tell me to do the reverse, to re-use an existing character because the audience, or reader, will accept them more easily.

Timeline, surprisingly, is the most difficult aspect so far, in a couple of ways.  Having established that Chas is my hero/antihero I may not need to know what ultimately happens to him, but I do have to place the completed work within a timeframe.   It needs balance.  Ten chapters on Chas’s last year at school (don’t worry, there won’t be) are far too much if the plot is likely to span twenty years, yet I cannot miss out the experiences of that year if they shape his character and dictate later events.   And within that I need pace and rhythm, or the story to becomes absolutely linear – diary mode, with no diversions or back stories.

I have to be wary that awful word ‘genre’ does not tag the piece as a ‘North Country’ novel, with all that implies.   The backcloth I describe above generates an image for some, a label I am anxious to avoid.  Casterley is NOT Bishop Auckland, any more than Chas is me, or Sue’s character relates to someone I have known.   The action of this book could as easily take place almost anywhere – in London, for example, because the greater part of London is a bloated version of Casterley, and Chas and Sue could as easily be Cockneys.  The book would contain more violence and less generosity of spirit, but it would work.

All right – BORING!  Let’s finish this off now, and go for tea.

What will happen to Chas, or Sue?  I don’t know.  I can only tell you it will make a book, and I hope it will be a good book.  That’s what is so exciting for me.  I can write a life that is subject to the same vicissitudes of fortune as your life, or mine.  Along came a bus?  What was that line from a lyric of John Lennon’s?   ‘Life is something that happens to you while you are busy making other plans’.

That’s it!   Mad!   No plans!    Another episode early in the New Year.

Happy New Year, everybody!





14 responses to “A Writing Challenge: the thinking behind ‘A Place That Was Ours’.”

  1. Glad to hear you’re working on another novel. Planner or not, you’re a wonderful writer. I very much enjoyed the books of yours I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carrie! And touche, I t’inks you pretty damn good too! Enjoy New Year!


        1. Tehe! I just realised I left an extra bit on the bottom of the copy! So much for editing! The demons of ‘Select All’ strike again.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the insights into your writing process. When I wrote my novel, it was based on “real” events, so the framework was obvious—my grandfather leaves Europe, comes to the US, adapts, grows up, faces hardship, and meets my grandmother. But filling in the gaps came much as you describe—organically and almost as if the characters had entered my head with a life of their own. I’d never written fiction before—or not since childhood—and it felt magical and mystical to me. I hope I get to do it again. Thank you for sharing your own methodology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dickens apparently used to ‘act out’ his characters, often walking about the room, using mirrors and so on. I’ve never been moved to go quite that far – but who would argue with Dickens? I certainly get right inside my characters and have to identify with them – not their emotions. I think you can write anger simply by getting yourself angry, but are you describing how your character would react, or your own reaction? Chas is very angry at the moment, so I have to be careful how I develop it…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My husband learned an important lesson once when I was in the midst of writing. He made the mistake of asking me whether I wanted to have lunch. I barely looked up at him and muttered, “I am in 1904 NYC, can’t you see?” Never again did he dare interrupt me when he knew I was writing!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, I can empathise: interruption is unforgivable, especially when you’re ‘on a roll’. My usual problem is my dog barging in on me, although my wife and a vacuum cleaner come a close second! Ah, how we artists must suffer for our art!

          Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s always interesting to learn how stories evolve. I’m not a planner either and my books often cross genres. The scary thing about writing as we do is when something happens in chapter 8 to alter circumstance in chapter 5. It’s easy to go back and fix those road bumps when the novel is being written as a whole, polished and adjusted before anyone sees it. But posting a chapter at a time and letting the characters take the reins can lead anywhere.

    It’s scary and exhilarating to think what you’re doing. And given your amazing talent, I have no doubt it will be mesmerizing.

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your kind compliments, Mae. Yes, exactly! It’s all out there, warts and all, and the past cannot change – which mirrors life, after all. My characters face real dilemmas (see next chapter) that I have to let them resolve in their own way – but the consequences? Who knows?
      A brilliant New Year to you, too. May the celebrations never stop!


  4. I am a pantser. My first novel for Young Adults began with what was supposed to be a short story, but it took on a life of its own when the major character and others took over. That one was set in 1968-9 rural Australia.
    My second novel (Y.A.), about to become available, again began with an event and a major character. I didn’t know where it would lead, but the characters took it forward. It is set in 1960-61 – different characters to those in the first book, but set in a nearby region.
    My third novel, which I didn’t expect to write, is in its very early stages, and will bring the main characters from the first two books together. I have some ideas on how this might happen (as I did with the first two novels), but it is up to the characters to determine just what will happen and how.
    Your method here, Frederick, of writing & posting your story chapter by chapter is a very brave one. I couldn’t do that. I write mine chapter by chapter in longhand, then write each up, editing as I go. I don’t like others to see my writing until it is ready to be read by a few trusted fellow writers and readers.
    I love how your story is developing, though I am rather behind due to the commitments of the seasonal holidays.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it is rather more foolhardy than brave, Linda, but thanks for telling me you are a ‘pantser’ too; I feel less lonely, now! Yes, I realise the editing will be imperfect, and I hope my readers will forgive me that. I do what editing I can. I’m just revelling in the excitement!


  6. Ohh Fred, please continue to ignore all plans and labels, because that is what makes this tale so natural. I dive in and I am there without thought of labels or marketing or anything else. I am just in the story, caring about the characters. May you continue to flow your own way with this, it’s a joy to read. Hugs Xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jane, I will. I could hope for no higher accolade!

      Liked by 1 person

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