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Saturday, 28 February 2015

The slippery path of fiction writing

When the plot takes over control

Some strange things happen to those of us who write. One of these is when the plot takes on a life of its own and leads the author where he or she doesn’t want to go.  

Coincidence twenty years on

This is happening to me. And either very aptly, or very bizarrely, I gave the title Strange Roads to the story when I began it a year ago. It all started out with a coincidence. Nearly twenty years ago I visited a part of the French countryside to the west of Paris and came across the tombs of 3 young British soldiers killed in action on August 28th, 1944. At 23 I was older than they were when they had died. This caused quite an inner stir in me and I noted them down in my diary, paid my respects, and left. And the years passed.

Last autumn, I happened to be out on a Sunday hike. Nearing a river in the Epte valley, I came across a small, stone monument. And incredibly, here were the same 3 names I’d seen all those years ago. It was the place where their tank had gone up in flames.

I took it as a sign to write something for them. A novel in their honour. Initial mind-mapping (I use Buzan’s technique to map out ideas and plots), brought me the characters, the story, twelve chapters and an ending. All that had to be done was follow the motorway and write the thing.

The building of the pontoon at Vernon, days before the attack up the Epte valley, August 1944. Courtesy, British Pathé News.

Battling with the mischievous muse

So I began writing. Three months gave me six written chapters and a further five planned as the story matured: Strange Roads, a story set in 1947 with the return of Jack Kemp to France and the homage he had to pay to his fallen comrades (with of course, a lively description of the local folks, their surroundings, and a love story with a local school mistress that all ends happily!).

And then the story began to take control. Story or characters? Some of them started getting nasty. The story  not only traced the beginnings of love between the two key characters, but suddenly began to detour into the sexual inclinations of both the primary and the secondary characters – not only adding spice, but also a heavy dose of intrigue. I tried to steer the story back on course. To no avail. Added to the blushingly torrid sex scenes, came a ghastly putsch with the characters leading the pen (or keyboard in these modern times!) flowing towards a thriller √† la Hitchcock! Come back, stay sweet, stay high-brow, my mind shouted. I don’t like thrillers! But the characters – or perhaps what Elizabeth Gilbert (cf TED) would call our mischievously creative muse – had decided to plunge the book into a revolution and take the path of blackmail, murder, hidden treasure, hidden truths and hidden identities.

The last time I wrote was during the Christmas break – when out and about, a couple of historical discoveries concerning the Knights Templar in the region and an apparent French government attempt to hush up a local gardener who knew too many secrets about the treasure in the 1950s, added oil to the flames. The thirty or so pages hammered out between mouthfuls of Christmas pud’ read like a sexed-up mix of The Good German (Jospeh Kanon – the book is light years better than the botched attempt at catching the spirit of the 1940s of the film) and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (originally a short story written by a certain Cornell Woolrich). I didn’t want it to be. But it was. Unable to control things, steering far down a stranger road than I had set out upon, I decided to give it all a break.

Decision time

No, the story wasn’t turning out to be a deeply poignant tribute to loss and love. And maybe, the thought came to me, I wasn’t meant or even capable of writing such stuff (too bad for the inclusion of his nibs in the great annals of Anglo-Saxon literary works). It is now decision time: scrap the whole thing, tear out the thriller-sex, coerce my story back onto its original path, make it nice? Or give in to the crankiness of the characters, accept the popular fiction label, and risk going down the silly track of lost treasures and torrid sex scenes (something that seems to get miles more publicity in the UK/US than a serious message in a story)?

It isn’t writing that isn’t easy: it’s creating a good plot
Tom Gamble waiting for Dickens to open the door
One thing I have learnt (or been reminded of, to be more exact) is that it isn’t writing that isn’t easy. It is creating a plot. And a good plot at that. Time and time again, the writing process is filled with trial and doubt – “would the character actually do that? Does this sound convincing? Won’t people think that’s silly (or worse still, crap)? Aren’t I giving up my values?” are constant recalls to review, re-write, re-think.
Will Strange Roads continue down its strange path to thrillerdom? At this stage, I don’t know. I wanted to pay tribute to three young British soldiers – 17, 19 and 21 years old – who were in a tank, in a French valley under the pouring rain of late August 1944, and who lost their lives for something that for our generations has “softened” with time. Maybe the best way to pay tribute is lay down the poppies on Poppy day and say a little prayer for them of gratitude. And let the story go down the road it wants to.
Tom Gamble is author of the novels Amazir and TheKingdom of Emptiness.


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