I’m editing Poor Law, the sequel to A Just and Upright Man and second in the five book James Blakiston series. At least, I thought I was. But a couple of days ago a series of strokes of the sort of genius known only to the greatest minds meant I had to accept that I was into a wholesale rewrite and not just an edit. I’ve spent a large part of today in 18th century Durham county, the POV I’ve been writing these scenes in is that of a young woman and I got into that trance-like state that comes—sometimes—when it’s going well, you’re undisturbed and you’ve left your own world behind and moved completely into someone else’s. If you like—though it’s a word I don’t like—I’ve been channelling a sixteen year old girl from the 1760s. A number of things happened and Kate told me each time how she felt, what was in her mind and what the reaction of other people was. Times like that you have to keep going, keep writing because you don’t know when you’re going to have that rock-solid connection to another world again. When I finally came out of it (because I needed to eat) I was reminded of that time I’d been writing a 20th Century criminal and, when I finally stood up, I was patting my pockets, desperate for a cigarette. It took twenty minutes before I remembered that I don’t smoke.
That took me on to Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, where protagonist Billy McErlane stood over me while I was working telling me, “Don’t forget the anger management. Tell them about the psych. Wendy wouldn’t have behaved like that, she’d have done this.” And from there it wasn’t a huge step to When the Darkness Comes and Haile Selassie elbowing his way forward when he caught the scent of Barabbas (who he didn’t care for one little bit) and saying, “If he’s in, I’m in.” The Lion of Judah had no place in my plans but he wasn’t going to be denied. He took control, too. So I suppose the question is fairly obvious. Am I completely round the bend? Is there any hope?
I’ve been writing – fiction and non-fiction – for a long time. My first sale was an article to Good Housekeeping. I didn’t realise till later that I was starting at the top and would have to work very hard to stay there. If you’d like to hear the very first thing I ever sold to the BBC you can download it here. And I can go back further than that, to the age of ten when I read a story of mine from the stage of Benton Park Primary School in Newcastle upon Tyne to the assembled pupils and parents. Whatever I’ve written has always been full of false starts – an opening chapter or chapters that were only there as scaffolding to get the story going and had disappeared by the time I finally wrote END on the bottom of the last page.
The Making of Billy McErlane was different – and a very odd experience. I wrote the first sentence: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. Then I sat there staring at it thinking, “Where on earth did that come from?” Then I wrote the rest of the first chapter. And it’s all still there. I started writing Billy Mac in 2013, it was published on February 1st 2015 and the opening line and chapter are exactly what they were when I started writing. That has never happened to me before.
All the way through the writing, editing and rewriting, the protagonist – Billy – was looking over my shoulder. There never was a Billy, he’s one hundred per cent my invention, but the was there. There. Watching what I was doing. Talking to me. “Tell them about the anger management.” “Don’t forget the bike.” “I didn’t know Regus then – that came later.”
I’ve had this experience of characters talking to me, guiding me, again since then – I’m currently polishing Darkness Comes and I couldn’t have written that in anything like its present form if I hadn’t had Barabbas and Ras Tafar butting in with their comments and demands, but Billy was the first. He took me to a new level of intensity in my writing. I’m grateful to him, though the experience was a bit like banging your head against a wall – nice when it stops.