Tag Archives: norwich

Transreal Fiction

I noticed when editing my short story collection how many times I use my recurring character Tom Robinson – a person who shares a lot of their life experiences with me.
Part of the reason for this is that I wanted to use a lot of the events I have lived through and the feelings I had at the time so it seemed “honest” to have a reasonably accurate version of me go through them in the story. I hope I have been careful not to make Tom a hero but a person who shares my flaws as well as my strengths.
Another reason is that I was attracted to Rudy Rucker’s concept of Transreal fiction where you use your own life as a jumping off point in fantasy or science fiction so that the characters are realistic even if the setting is fantastic.
Other authors have used the inclusion of a “me” character as wish fulfilment, but I didn’t want to do that. Tom is normally the narrator retelling what has happened to other characters while he is only a peripheral part of the action.
There are exceptions – particularly the “Dulwich” short story and novel – based on my experiences as a journalist but taking their stylistic cues from two alumni of Dulwich School: P.G.Wodhouse and Raymond Chandler respectively.
The short story – included in The Cat Factory and Other Stories and attached below as a free taster – is a farce where I tried to emulate Wodhouse’s wonderful domino rally plotting. The plot elements are carefully installed at the start and you then just push the first one over and see the pattern emerge as they tumble.
The novel is a noirish crime story with a lot of black humour in the background. A dark sense of humour is endemic in journalism as well as other professions where you deal with the aftermath of tragedy on a regular basis. It gives you a way of being empathic but keeping a degree of distance.
Most of the background incidents in both stories are completely true, although the characters they happen to are removed from reality in order to protect the innocent (and me from libel, although I still have the notebooks). The newspaper I worked for has already featured in one comic novel: Yeah,Yeah, Yeah by Angus McGill, and formed the basis for Norman Wisdom’s Press for Time.
As well as putting in a fictional crime plot I used the mythic subtext of the Fisher King legend. It is set in the Queen’s Jubilee year of 1977 when Elvis died and punk was king. It was also a year of economic and political turmoil as Militant Tendency were struggling for the soul of the Labour Party and the seeds of the Thatcherite revolution and the death of Tyneside’s traditional heavy industries were being sown, as well as the start of change in the newspaper industry as it moved from hot metal to litho and computers. It seemed the perfect setting for a coming of age story with the death of the Council leader echoing the death of so many other things we thought would keep getting better in the heady freedom of the sixties.

Although on the face of it the novel is in the crime genre, I added a few things to make it an alternate reality novel – just because I could.

Tom so far has featured in two novels and five short stories – nine if you realise he is the unnamed narrator of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics stories. He will feature again in the rest of the novels in the series started with Masonic Fire and may have a walk on part in the Three Wise Monkeys stories.

To read Identity Crisis click here

A Kind of Magic

I’m about to start rewriting Masonic Fire (or Chasing the Dragon depending on which title I go for) for the second time.
I did the first draft last November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a straight conspiracy thriller. I then had more ideas for the main characters as occult thrillers so went back and rewote it adding supernatural elements.
While my best reader and critic – my wife Jules – liked both versions, she felt the second one hadn’t integrated the supernatural elements well enough as there was no underlying rationale for them. What I then decided to do was to think about the underlying structure of that universe so the books would explore that as well as working as stories.
Most novels featuring supernatural elements or magic just accept it as a given and use one or more occult traditions as a backdrop. The reason we don’t generally experience this in everyday life is the UFOlogist explanation – it is there but is covered up in some way by either the magicians themselves or some government agency that doesn’t want us to know what’s really going on. Or we simply suppress the memory.
There are a few ways of trying to put some kind of scientific rationale for magic:
• The Arthur C Clarke theory – magic is simply advanced technology. That is (sort of) the approach Lovecraft used – magic relies on the presence of ancient aliens whose technology is so far beyond ours that it looks miraculous and acts of magic by humans is based on tapping that power
• Magic is something that comes into our universe from somewhere else where it does work – either an extradimensional world of Faerie, or the Pratt/ de Camp approach where the underlying laws of an adjacent universe work differently so magic is possible. The Zelazny/Amber variation is that our world is shadow of a real world where magic works.
• Magic is based on undeveloped powers of the human mind which a few individuals have been able to tap into
All of them are bit of cop out in my view – that doesn’t mean that I don’t like enjoy them, as I do. Just that I don’t like them for my own work as I want to be able to write about issues in our own world that I care about which means most of the characters should be ordinary people with ordinary human strengths and weaknesses.
Most stories featuring the occult or magic have heroes who are special – they have talents the rest of us don’t. I want to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which I believe is the real magic in our world.
I cheat a bit in the science I use – a lot is theories that are not wholly accepted, to say the least. I then use that to develop a revamp of history which keeps the same facts, but puts a different spin on what is happening.
The core of it is the Einstein/Bell/Rodalsky paradox which points out that the behaviour of paired particles contradicts the Theory of General Relativity as they seem to indicate something travels faster than the speed of light. My explanation is that there is a fundamental substrate of information which means at a quantum level everything is connected.
At the other end is Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Omega Point. A Jesuit Priest and scientist he speculated that the purpose of the universe was to evolve consciousness to a point where it becomes God. In my version of the universe that collective godhood then travels back in time and sets the condition for the Big Bang – thus having an ouroboros loop where it sets the conditions for its own creation.
Between these bottom and top levels are James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis where the earth is a collective organism which is itself evolving in the same way its constituent creatures are, and Jung’s Collective Unconscious which links all human beings at a fundamental level populated by common archetypes. Jung’s idea has a number of variations from the mundane that our brain structure throws up things that we interpret in a similar way, to a more mystical one. Mine is at the mystical end which uses the Gaia theory and the pairing of particles to suggest that we actually do communicate unconsciously in a real way.
The working out of this can then be used to explain magic, bringing in things like stone tapes, mystically charging objects and places, possession, supernatural creatures, ghosts, and the power of ritual.
The reason in my universe that we don’t see magic is that there are three basic worldviews that are competing to impose their version of the Omega point on the universe – the magical, the religious and the rational/scientific. There are only a few people in each of these camps that understand what is going on and are in the battle knowingly and who consciously propagate their memes in order to win. Those who see the supernatural either accept it or rationalise it according to their own world view.
There is an organisation first set up by the Royal Society – or more accurately by its predecessor the Invisible College – to maintain a balance between the three world views. Hence the re-explanation of history. When the protagonists accidentally stumble into the machinations of people who want to change the balance in their favour, they are introduced to the organisation which reveals this truth to them.
Now I’ve worked it out, I just need to rewrite the story!

A Novel in a month? easy peasy!

Not quite what the title suggests, but I managed to achieve the 50k target for the National Novel Writing in a Month challenge by day 17 instead of 31. However it took another couple of days of work to actually finish the book and it will take about twice as long to get it to a state I’m happy with. Nevertheless not too bad an achievement.

I had done some work before I started – a general idea of the plot, characters and enough background reading to have lots of info to drop in at appropriate times. As it was set in a city I lived in for 25 years I just needed the odd peak at an A-Z to remind myself of street names (Like most old cities Norwich’s street names can change halfway through to reflect the medieval street layout) and what connected to what at what point.

As a conspiracy thriller, I had to decide what the conspiracy was, and its historic origins. This was a mix of join the dots history (this looks a bit like this so they must be connected) and if in doubt, making it up.The vast majority of the historic background and myths about the city are real, but the way I link them up is imagined and I did invent a couple of historic documents to link things up.It is, of course, not quite the Norwich of today. Although I tried to base the novel in the period I was writing it, the people are made up and the core drivers of the plot are imaginary, though plausible.

The only real character (apart from versions of myself and Jules I couldn’t resist putting in) is local former bookshop owner Norman Peake and I hope he forgives me killing him off (spoiler alert if it ever gets published). Any resemblance to other real people alive or dead is probably libellous so will be strenuously denied.

The timing was quite good as Jules has been working as a supporting artists in London on a six week shoot so I was able to sit at home or in a café in London and type for dear life. It was quite good discipline, though as I have since rattled out 50 pages of notes for a potential sit com and done lots of housework and admin stuff. Our accounts are now up to date, as are those for the Dare2dream Charity, and I’ve finally got round to ordering the 30 light bulbs I need to replace around the house.

Next job is to go back to the Revolutionary Tapestry and edit it into a decent shape so I can start sending it to agents. That is a more ambitious book with a bit of worldbuilding and a lot of period feel to get right in both the setting and characters. I got a couple more books with background info for my birthday so will read and make my usual copious notes on them.

The other good thing is that three stories of mine will appear in the anthology being created for Christmas by the local writer’s group so relatives and friends can guess one thing they may get as a present this year!

Two days in to NaNoWriMo

Two days in to National Novel Writing Month and still going strong! I’m ahead of my word count but it is the weekend so that makes life easier. Jules is working in London a lot of this month so I will have lots of opportunities to either work at home on my own or sit in a café and write while she does some supporting artist work or rehearses for her understudy role at a Christmas show.

I did a fair bit of prep in October – I already had the basic plot idea and some thoughts on locations and characters and I’ve raided some stuff from a short story I started and decided wasn’t working. As it’s set in Norwich I’m familiar with the geography and the background politics and institutions so don’t have to do the same amount of research I did for the Revolutionary Tapestry.

The extra stuff was reading more detail on Norwich in the 1750s and rereading books on the Hellfire Clubs and links between Freemasonry and architecture.

The basic concept hasn’t changed but I moved the time period to the present day rather than the 1990s and wrote biographies of the main characters. That helped as I was able to build in thoughts on the relationships between the characters and background tensions and conflicts not relating to the main action but informing it. While writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I realised it was about family and parenthood and while thinking about Masonic Fire I’ve realised it is about politics and elites and what marginalisation or exclusion does to people.

I suspect I’ll reach the target of 50,000 words in plenty of time and continue writing for a significant word count after that but, as always, the hard work will then be editing it down. It’s not about word count its about making every word count.

Writing a Novel in a Month

For my sins I’ve joined the National Novel in a Month campaign. This means I need to write 50,000 words in November and post it online.

This doesn’t mean stopping work on the existing novel – now in the stage of rewriting following very useful but fortunately positive comments from friends – but adding another one to the workload.

As I had half a dozen ideas already in the notebook I asked members of the Suffolk Writers Group which one they liked most. The answer, by a slight majority, was Masonic Fire – a conspiracy thriller set in Norwich. Second was Grimm Reaper – a serial killer story set in Lowestoft with a group of three teenagers as sleuths. Medieval detective story Trial By Jewry – set in Norwich in 1189 – was third. As it happens this was the same order my wife Jules put them in and my own preference as well. Masonic Fire has the additional benefit that I’ve already done a lot of the research and just need to revisit it.

I’ll get round to all of them – plus my widescreen baroque science fiction novel Legion of the Lost and the two sequels to The Revolutionary Tapestry – at some point. Current plan is to have a set of thematic, character or plot links between all of them.

50,000 words sounds a lot, but the first four chapters and the synopsis of The Revolutionary Tapestry come to nearly 40,000 so I’m not too worried. Finishing the book as well as the target is more of a challenge.

If anyone knows anything about the Hellfire Club in Norwich (at the Bell hotel in around 1750) I would be delighted to hear from you. The Dashwood and Wharton clubs, plus those in Ireland and Scotland are reasonably well documented but not the Norwich one – apart from a reference to an anti clerical riot. I could always use imagination, however.

The original plan was to set it in the mid 90s at the time of the Central Library and Assembly Rooms fires and the chalk mine collapses as I was working for the City Council at the time but I’ve now decided to base it today and use them as background history.

Wish me luck.

Research, the internet and synchronicity

One of the jobs I find I both love and hate is research. In a short story (or in the past in the one novel I drafted) my tendency was to write first and do the research later. That way I get the story down and then look up what I need to improve either accuracy or detail.

One reason for this was a desire to get the ideas down on the screen before I forgot them, a second was to avoid putting too much exposition in the story and the third was simply a lack of info outside of physical books at the time I started part time writing.

A few things have changed now I am writing full time. One is using Scrivener as a tool rather than Word. Scrivener allows you to see notes, research, character descriptions, chapter or scene summaries etc at the same time as writing, and also means – for me at least – that I can have several outlines on the go at once and add thoughts and bits of information as I come across them to be written up later when I get to that project proper.

As an example, I have ideas for a short story and two novels set in Norwich – a city I lived and worked in for 25 years and love deeply. Although the stories are different – one is a dark fantasy short story, one a historical detective novel, and one a conspiracy novel – they share a common physical location and are rooted in the history of the city as well as my own life there. That means when researching one of these I will often come across facts that would be useful to one of the other two. I can park them in the appropriate place in the Scrivener file for later.

The second thing is the internet. This now has a lot more stuff on it, and of a lot better quality, than there was eight or nine years ago. Wikipedia was only created in 2001 (it says on Wikipedia). There are also a lot more original research documents up there – and more digitised historic documents. Public sector websites in particular have grown in quality and quantity. When I first started the main sources were printed books. I still use these but there are a lot more of those around as well thanks to Amazon and print on demand reprints of out of print material.

The internet is a mixed benefit. On the one hand you can generally find something useful. On the other it rarely gives you exactly the answer you want, and it is a very easy way to waste time. It is also really useful for cutting and pasting – how much time did we all waste rewriting stuff on index cards?

Its’ surprising main benefit for me is that it often throws up wonderful synchronicities. The story I am writing at the moment is set in Norwich and features the return of ghosts who possess two of the main characters as they are engaged in a battle to give the city independence as a unitary authority with an elected mayor. The ghosts are summoned after the hero – a retired council PR person who now works part time in a second hand musical instrument shop – is given a horn which turns out to be the one used by Roland. Playing this summons the ghosts.

Doing the research on the internet threw up two useful ideas which are now integrated in the story – the legend of King Gurgunt who is supposed to have founded Norwich Castle and who I had never heard of despite writing guidebooks to the city, and the fact that the Lollards Pit pub is on the site where protestant martyrs were burned and is supposed to be the most haunted in the City. The pub is now the place where the lead character’s band play and start the ghost summoning and Gurgunt will make an appearance at the end in the climactic benefit gig in the Castle to support the independent Norwich lobby.

I was looking for other things when I came across these, but they now will (hopefully) make the story a lot stronger. I may have come across the same thing in a book, but I think it is les likely.

Discovering things abut how I can use the internet for this story – and researching a real life person called Norman Peake of the Svientific Anglian Bookshop who will feature – then gave me an idea for the Conspiracy Theory novel. What if Computer Scientists at the UEA were using Norman to try and develop features of the Semantic Web? They use a combination of the books in his shop about Norwich and its history, geography and socio economic background together with his own knowledge of the City (which was extensive) to create a hypertext document which could be machine searched to find links which would not be possible otherwise? The story is set around the burning of Norwich Library and its rebuilding under what was originally called the Technopolis Project – later the Forum – which I was involved in together with the Computer Department at UEA and many others so it is a project that could have happened using the EU funding we were accessing at the time. Part of the Technopolis concept was a high tech visitor attraction about the City’s history so it would have been a good fit. The project can then help uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the thriller.

See – synchronicity at work.