In writing a novel, it is not just your protagonist that embarks on a journey but you, walking alongside your fictional companion like a medieval hero and his chronicler. This is a long road so imagine it as you like; perhaps carrying a shield upon your back and a sword in your hand, hiking in the woods with your best friend, or maybe doggedly pushing a shopping cart with your kid through an apocalyptic wasteland armed only with a revolver and two shells.
I was having had a spot of bother with a rich man’s wife. She was older than me but I didn’t care. I just wanted her, like some strange and terrible drug. It was the usual story. She’d married young, enticed by the charm of a mature and successful man, and the stability that comes of secure investments. The age gap had not seemed so much when she was twenty and he was fit and fifty.
There were at least five ways home from The Saracen’s Head, and Stan couldn’t think of any of them. He adjusted to the sharp shock of the winter darkness instead, lit a fag, and smoked it savagely as if it had in some way done him greatly wrong. Behind himself, the lights of the pub shut off one by one. Loneliness bit down. Stan Metcalf stoically lit another off the butt of the first. It was late, he was in trouble. Ruby would be waiting.
We were approaching the islands of Madeira, about midway in our journey, the day we lost a man and a horse. The animal belonged to Sheldon-Bond, and he was considerably more put out by its passing than he was that of the human being that accompanied it into the void. The young subaltern remained in a foul humour for the rest of that miserable and ill-omened day, his unfortunate man, Private Dodd, getting the worst of it. I tried to avoid him, as there was already bad blood between us, but this was difficult given the confines of the ship. As he stormed around the deck like a vengeful wraith in a graveyard, I could read the message in his eyes when they connected with my own quite clearly.
Last week, I brought another USW ‘How to Write a Novel’ course to an end, after three very pleasant and enjoyable months of writing and sharing. It was more a case of ‘Au Revoir’ than a fond farewell though; as always happens, friendships were forged and now we’re all linked up on Facebook, an informal writer’s group that expands with every course. Some students, meanwhile, are staying with us at the school and moving on to Ashley Stokes’ Online Workshop to develop the manuscripts they’ve been writing on my course. This happen a lot, because once people find their way to us – the friendly alternative to all those institutional and corporate creative writing programmes – they tend to stay. There’s a definite sense of family. And don’t get me wrong, we have all the knowledge and expertise of the professors, in fact some of us are professors, we just prefer to be a bit more practical and down to earth about the whole business of, you know, actually writing, rather than just talking about it.
n a blog for the Unthank School of Writing entitled 'How To Write A Novel and What It Did For Me,' student Jackie Harmon talks about the learning/teaching experience on an online creative writing course designed and taught by yours truly. The last course has just ended and places are still available on the next, which begins in May. You'll find details here. Jackie Harmon, like me, has an academic background, and is currently working on a historical novel set in the late-nineteenth century. From what I've seen so far this is going to be an impressive debut...
It’s one of life’s truisms that reading widely and critically is essential if you're serious about writing. You don’t need a degree in literature to be a critical reader; a lot of it is good, old fashioned common sense, and you’ll have most likely been reading this way naturally for years already, so naturally in fact that you might not be aware that you’re doing it. The next stage, especially if you’re beginning to write your own fiction, is to focus much more consciously on the individual components of narrative structure, and to apply this knowledge to your own writing.
Writing historical fiction offers a unique set of challenges: How far should you let the historical record dictate your own plot? Should you dramatize famous historical figures, or should your central character or characters be fictional? How do you build a lost world in the pages of your book? This is also a task that requires meticulous research, but at the same time you must avoid what Walter Scott described as the ‘dragging in of unnecessary historical details.’ It can also be rather lucrative if you get it right, so if you’re thinking about writing a historical novel, here are a few tips to get you started…