In South Lincolnshire on the afternoon of 28th January 1970, the countryside was enveloped in thick, freezing fog. It made the roads treacherous and there were protracted delays on the trains. Driving in country lanes was especially hazardous. Although some level crossings had already been fitted with so-called ‘continental barriers’, with relatively sophisticated warning systems, most were still simple five-barred gates operated manually. The practice in country districts where there wasn’t much traffic was to leave the gates closed against the road. Vehicles wishing to cross had to summon the crossing-keeper, who usually resided in an adjacent lodge-house tied to the job. Such an arrangement existed at Sutterton Dowdyke, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Boston and east of the A16.
On 28th January, the regular Peterborough to Skegness train was considerably delayed by the fog. The driver of a tanker lorry owned by the council who regularly travelled on Dowdyke Road rang the bell to summon the crossing keeper to open the gates. The driver and his mate had been sent to empty a cesspit in the area and, task completed, were now returning to their depot. The crossing keeper, a woman in late middle age, came out and chatted with them briefly before opening the gates. The driver eased the lorry onto the crossing (most crossings at the time were notoriously bumpy) and was sitting right in the middle of it when the train came thundering through the fog, which had muffled the noise it was making until this moment, and flung the lorry into the air. The train was derailed. It ploughed into the lodge-house and turned the building one hundred and eighty degrees on its foundations. The lorry driver’s mate was killed instantly; the lorry driver himself was taken to hospital, critically injured.
Miraculously, the crossing-keeper was not hurt, but collapsed at the scene and was also taken to hospital, badly shocked.
My family and I first learned of the accident when watching the nine o’clock news that evening. The site of the accident wasn’t named, but my father recognised the lodge-house. We drove there immediately and then on to the Pilgrim Hospital to visit the crossing keeper. She was my father’s aunt and my own great-aunt.
My memories of that night sowed the first seeds of the plot of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates novel, which I have just completed.
I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’. (Why do I dislike this term? I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!) Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book. Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven! (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history… wiv pitchers!)
So, here I go, with a bounce:
What am I working on?
I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel. Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk. Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s. My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there. The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was frozen in a time warp. It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house. When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century. That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.
How does my work differ from others in this genre?
As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres. I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant. Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer. I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed. Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres. I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels. Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own. I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas. I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is. I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far. For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed. More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer. I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers. However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally. I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely. The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing. I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot. Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction. However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.
How does my writing process work?
Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction. Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work. I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter. I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel. I don’t start out by conducting the research. Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along. This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading. It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel! I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets. I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more. I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again. Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing. Often I do this on long train journeys. Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text. Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking. He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax. Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.
‘Ere, Valerie, your turn! Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping! I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement. She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional. One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award. Respek! You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/
Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here. I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
The writers’ workshop that my husband and I jointly led on Friday 18th October was part of the thirteenth Wolds Words Festival. It is a flourishing event that takes place annually in and around the pretty market town of Louth. The workshop was scheduled in the library, an impressively busy place in which the considerable bookstock was displayed most invitingly. The library staff were all great: extremely helpful, both to those attending the workshop and to their regular library users. It’s one of the most successful small libraries I’ve ever visited and clearly the librarians work hard to achieve this.
We said that we would work with up to twelve participants and the workshop quickly sold out (though not everyone actually made it on the day). We were asked to focus on two aspects of writing: crime and using local history in fiction. We heard that a workshop on plot construction that had taken place on the previous day had also been very successful.
As a warming-up exercise, I gave the group some of my own tips on how to get published. As I’ve already offered some of these in this blog and shall be writing about others in more detail in future posts, I’m not covering them again here. Similarly, I’m not including my tips on how to incorporate local history into fiction here, saving them for a separate post.
We moved on to discussing why the participants had chosen the workshop and what they hoped to get out of it. Their answers were, perhaps not too surprisingly, very similar, and boiled down to a single joint ambition with three further ‘sub-wishes’. The over-arching goal of everyone present was to see their work published. One of the writers had already had poems published in anthologies; one had published a factual account of the sea some twenty years before and one had contributed short stories to an online magazine. None of the others had had work published. Two had written novels, but neither had been successful in finding a publisher.
The ‘sub-wishes’ were perhaps even more interesting: they each concerned confidence, or the lack of it. They included the expressed desire to write something that was worth reading ‘at all’; the fear that a certain flaw – in one case, an inability to write convincing dialogue – was an insurmountable stumbling-block; and the suspicion that the author’s take on life was too left-field ever to find a publisher. To these doubts, I replied that almost everyone can write something worth reading if they work at it hard enough; that ‘flaws’ can be overcome or minimised, again with hard work; and that many readers prefer a more unusual viewpoint to something more conventional, though I agreed that this may make it more difficult to attract a traditional publisher.
Next we read and explored four short passages from very different novels, each demonstrating some particular aspect of writing. We looked at the ‘fog’ passage from Bleak House as an example of creating atmosphere; Virginia Woolf’s description of the Ramsays’ holiday house in To the Lighthouse to establish a sense of place; a passage from Where the Devil Can’t Go, a novel by Anya Lipska, a talented new crime writer whom I’ve written about previously in the blog, that depicts her heroine’s character; and finally a piece of dialogue from my own novel, In the Family. We each took forty minutes to write a short passage following on from one of these, or alternatively any short fictional piece of our own choosing. The writings were shuffled and passed around until we had each read all of the passages; no-one knew who had written which. Each of us then told the others what we liked about the piece that we had in front of us at the end. We all found plenty to praise, which I think confirmed resoundingly that there is a writer in almost everyone. I should very much like to thank all the writers for their really enthusiastic and participative response to the occasion.
Copies of my books were sold at the event by the local bookshop in Louth, which I also visited afterwards. One of its distinguishing features is that its sign hangs upside down! There is a story behind this: The shop used to be a general grocery store of the kind that I remember as a child, but which has completely disappeared now. Its owner, a man called Bill Platt, who ran it for many years from 1913 until he was in his seventies, was famed for his knowledge of local history as well as for the quality of his shop in Little Eastgate. He had business acumen, too. When the sign over his shop doorway blew down in a storm, it was affixed by accident the wrong way up; Bill recognised that it quickly became a talking point and therefore a good advert and simply left it like that. A local businessman, Mick Wright, who, with his wife Carol, turned the store into a newsagent’s and bookshop, has continued the tradition!
I had a long and pleasant conversation with Mick and his joint owner son Dean, and was extremely impressed by their can-do attitude towards running a bookshop in modern times. Their strategy is to diversify without abandoning the bookshop’s essential character and to provide exemplary service; they specialise in books about Lincolnshire. I purchased several by local authors, and was extremely grateful to be given a discount!
As you can see, I’ve included a few pictures of the event, the library and the bookshop. I’d never been to Louth before: it is quite a distance from Spalding. It is a lovely old market town; having now discovered it, I certainly plan to return. If you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit – and don’t forget to take in the library and the bookshop while you’re there!
This spring continues to be extraordinary. Yesterday evening, I was out walking the dog and had almost reached home again when I heard my first cuckoo of the year. In farming communities, it’s traditional to note down when this happens, so, to be precise, the time was 19.10 on May 30th 2013. I heard it again in the early hours of this morning, just as the dawn was breaking. (In the one day left of May, ‘he sings all day’!) Every year cuckoos come to call around the village, but this must be my latest first hearing in all the twenty years of my residence. I wonder if cuckoos are also behindhand because of the late spring and whether their June ‘changed tune’ (with an extra ‘cuk’) will be delayed until July?
Cuckoos are fascinating. The name itself, so precise in its onomatopoeic evocation of the call, is exotic. They are beautiful arboreal birds, shy of humans: I’ve seen them on only a few occasions, years apart. They’re pale grey in colour, with a gorgeous dark barred pale underbelly, and have a hawk-like flight and perching posture. What captured my imagination as a primary school child and still beguiles me is their anti-social behaviour. They are the vandals and parasites of the bird world, each one performing its own microcosmic act of ethnic cleansing. The females plant a single egg in the nest of a (usually) much smaller bird, such as a dunnock or a pipit; then, when the chick hatches, it dominates proceedings, diverting with a huge and gaping maw the host parents’ attention from their own offspring before turfing the latter, eggs and/or nestlings, out of the nest, thereby guaranteeing itself a monopoly on the food supply. What is strange is that the foster parents don’t seem to notice, instead running themselves ragged to feed a chick that soon grows to be much bigger than they are.
‘A cuckoo in the nest’ was an expression that I heard a lot when I was a child. It was used to describe someone – often male – whose self-indulgent behaviour and habits were spoiling things for the rest of the family or community: a heavy drinker or a work shirker, for example. It had various gradations of meaning: it was a bit like ‘fly in the ointment’, only more so; it also had overtones of the now over-used ‘the elephant in the room’ – although the latter saying implies that no-one is prepared to mention whatever it is that the elephant represents, which is not typical of forthright Lincolnshire folk. ‘Cuckoo’ is slang (particularly in America) for ‘crazy’, hence the title of the book and film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’; but in Lincolnshire dialect, someone saying ‘You’re a cuckoo’ (as opposed to ‘You’re cuckoo’), was paying you the compliment of calling you witty, or was amused by something that you’d just said. (A variant of this was ‘You’re a caution’.)
So, are cuckoos lovable or not? I think that they remain a puzzle: an enigmatic variant of Nature that has got by without obeying the rules. Like people who live by their wits, they expend a great deal of energy on not paying their way: energy that could equally well be expended on working within society instead of preying on it. Instead, once they’ve deposited their eggs – each female lays up to twelve – they swan off (so to speak!) to tropical Africa, where they spend nine months sunning themselves, the ornithological equivalent of the idle rich. I realise that I’m straying into dangerously anthropomorphic territory here, but it strikes me that the cuckoo is the Raffles of the bird world.
Cuckoos are fast declining in number and I am the more excited, therefore, when I hear their call; they are so traditionally part of an English spring that I hope we don’t lose them.
Stone Cradle is the second novel that I’ve read by Louise Doughty. The first, Whatever You Love, was an entirely different kind of book: a contemporary novel about child bereavement. Stone Cradle is a historical novel set in the Fens at the turn of the twentieth century, about a Traveller family. I bought it both because I’m interested in the Lincolnshire of that period and because it resonates with me personally, for reasons that I shall explain later, but first I’d like to say that any writer who can produce two such completely different, yet equally compelling, novels ticks several boxes for me straight away.
Stone Cradle is in part about the bleakness of being a working-class woman living in a predominantly farming community of the period. The story is told in the first person, alternately by a female Traveller, Clementina, and her daughter-in-law, Rose, a farmer’s adopted daughter who renounces the harsh life on the farm for the spurious glamour of running away to marry Clementina’s son, Elijah. It is one of the poignant ironies of the book that, although they share a great deal in common (including the fact that Elijah is illegitimate and Rose herself the illegitimate daughter of a mother who, like Clementina, worked hard to keep her), she and Clementina detest each other from the moment that they first meet. This is partly because they are rivals for Elijah’s affections, even though he is more often absent than present from their lives and both know that he is a ne’er-do-well, but even more because the norms and values of each are incomprehensible to the other. The dual first-person narrative captures this cleverly and is the more accomplished for going over the same events twice, through the eyes of each, without being repetitive. As someone who is experimenting with this technique at the moment, I know how difficult it is to pull off!
Rose persuades Elijah to live in a house in Cambridge (where Clementina presents herself as an uninvited guest and never moves out) for several years after their marriage, but Elijah’s fecklessness and their consequent poverty force them eventually to re-join the Travelling community. Rose never fits in. She dies twenty years before Clementina. At the beginning of the novel, Elijah, himself now an old man, is shown burying his aged mother. To save a few shillings, he has Rose’s grave opened and Clementina’s coffin laid on hers. Had they known, both women would have been appalled; the act epitomises both Elijah’s insensitivity and the privation that has followed them throughout their lives.
Two further qualities make this novel exceptional: the brilliant way in which Louise Doughty captures what it was like to be a member of the nineteenth-century Travelling community and her depiction of the period itself. The book has obviously been extensively researched, yet nowhere does the author parade her knowledge. One of the reasons for my being more often than not equivocal about historical novels is that, unless the author is very skilled indeed, the reader is presented with an outside-looking-in narrative: in other words, the author’s fictional take on what s/he has gained from the history books. Worse, this is sometimes accompanied by what I call the costume drama factor, i.e., a stereotypically ‘olde worlde’ way of making the characters think and speak, probably based on watching too many films. It takes a very talented writer not to fall into these traps, but Louise Doughty is such a writer.
Now I come to the personal resonance bit. In her acknowledgments, the author pays tribute to the Romany museum in Spalding (of which I was hitherto unaware) and the Boswell family. She actually gives the most noble of the Romany families in the book the name ‘Boswell’. It is another of the novel’s distinctions that the Traveller characters are not over-sentimentalised. There are rough and feckless Travellers, as well as ‘good’ ones, just as there are good and bad ‘gorjers’ (non-Travellers) living in and around Cambridge. The Boswell family was well-known in the Spalding of my youth. Their patriarch, whose first name I don’t know, because he was always referred to as ‘Bozzie’, had ceased to travel and built up a profitable scrap-metal business just outside the town. By the time I was born, he was reputed to be a millionaire and lived in a very nice house. I went with my father to see him on several occasions. In those days, I think that at least some of his family were still Travellers, and some may be still. Louise Doughty seems to indicate, however, that there is still a permanent Boswell presence in Spalding and evidently the Boswells were the inspiration behind the museum. I am determined to visit it next time I go to Spalding.
I was disgruntled to read in yesterday’s The Times that there is some kind of battle going on between Harwich and Plymouth about which place really ‘owned’ the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower. Both contenders are quite obviously charlatans: as every Lincolnshire schoolchild knows, the Pilgrim Fathers originated in Boston, from which Fenland town they had to flee as dissenters to the Netherlands. Subsequently they sailed to America, and founded a colony in Massachusetts, eventually naming its principal town… Boston! (See? Not Basildon or Barnstaple. Or Plymouth, indeed!)
The name of Boston, now borne with pride by one of the world’s great cities, should be sufficient proof that all other claimants to ancestral Mayflower fame are upstarts. However, I do acknowledge that the name of the rock on which they landed in 1620, which has always been known as Plymouth Rock, muddies the waters a little. But I’ve seen Plymouth Rock and, no disrespect, in a country that does everything BIG, it is perhaps the smallest and most understated monument that ever graced the description ‘tourist attraction’: a refreshing change from the biggest, richest, fattest and brightest (but rarely oldest) that is the more usual fare in America; yet, even to someone who thinks that small is beautiful, disappointing, nevertheless. And far from casting doubt upon my assertion, I think that Plymouth Rock proves it completely. Why? Because, with its limited dimensions, it’s quite obvious that no more than three people could have stepped ashore upon it. 102 people sailed in the Mayflower; two of them died on the voyage. Of the remaining 100, three obviously came from Plymouth; and the other 97 from Boston. In the absence of a rock bearing the legend Basildon or Barnstaple, and with a whole city to rely on, I rest my case.
Lincolnshire rules, ok?
Still reading about rural life, I was interested that the history of nineteenth century Lincolnshire that I have just completed and a more general book about farm labourers both mention gang labour. Gangs were self-assembled groups, sometimes of both sexes, sometimes consisting entirely of men or of women, who hired themselves out to farmers as an entity. The advantage to them was that, as a group, they were less likely to be exploited; some gangs also contained children (I suspect that, although the gang may have saved these minors from exploitation by the farmer, it was probably less punctilious about appropriating their wages!). However, they were often troublesome and, in Lincolnshire in the later nineteenth century, by-laws were introduced to attempt to curb their excesses of behaviour and to set out clearly the terms under which they could be employed.
Both books say that the practice of developing and employing gangs had become obsolete by the turn of the twentieth century. However, when I was a student in the 1970s, taking summer holiday jobs working in the local canning factory, gangs were certainly still being employed there. They were of three kinds:
A group of twenty or so Maltese women was taken on in the key fruit and vegetable harvesting months of June, July, August and September and they lived in trailers on the factory site. I remember that when I was cycling home in the evening, having worked the four hours’ overtime allowed, I would sometimes meet two of them carrying a crate of beer to share with the others.
Then there was a group of Irish women of all ages, many of them well-educated and some also students. They were boarded with regular factory workers who were prepared to take them in, their keep being paid for by the company.
Finally, there were local agricultural gangs, I imagine of exactly the kind that these history books refer to, who, like other local casual labour, turned up each day and were not provided with accommodation.
The gangs I knew consisted entirely of women. They were extremely rough and foul-mouthed and were usually put to work together; they were shunned by everyone else on the factory floor because they would pick a fight at the drop of a hat. One year, the forewoman (whose name was Dulcie – she had a voice like a squeaking gate) made the mistake of hiring two rival gangs. I vividly remember a woman from each of them fighting one Friday lunchtime, thrashing it out on the concrete floor. It was the most vicious event I have ever witnessed. They tore out handfuls of each other’s hair and scratched faces with fingernails, as well as landing punches. Eventually they were rolling on the ground, pulling at each other’s clothes. One of them ended up shirtless, her white bra bloodied and dusty. Dulcie and one of the male supervisors eventually succeeded in separating them and both gangs were dismissed. I guess that they spent the rest of the summer working on the land: at the time it was still possible to turn up at most farms and work at bean-pulling, potato-picking or bulb-cleaning for cash in hand at the end of the day. With hindsight, my guess is that most gang members were the virtual slaves of a single gang-master, or perhaps a few ‘élite’ overseers. I hope that the practice of gang employment has finally ceased now, but I suspect that the recent influx of immigrants to the agricultural communities of East Anglia may mean that it has ‘enjoyed’ an ignominious revival.