By Fay Sampson ~ January 31, 2012
I share with Donna the delight in researching the background to my books. But, as I discovered recently, it is possible to get carried away by this.
I was still working on one novel when I began to get the itch to come up with ideas for another mystery in a series I am writing for a different publisher.
This involved background research on the cotton spinning and weaving towns of north-west England. This is my husband’s family background. So I had made many visits in the days when his parents lived there.
This time, I had more specific objectives. The story I plan to tell interweaves the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when handloom weavers were being put out of work by cheaper mass production of the cotton mills, and a modern crime set in a decaying town where the cotton industry has run its course. I wanted to visit some of the few mills which remain as working museums. Ideally, I would have waited until I had finished the revision of the novel I was already working on. But autumn was drawing on and some of the places I needed to visit closed for the winter.
So Jack and I took ourselves off to Lancashire. We had a wonderful time. We were both thrilled to see looms and spinning machinery in action, steam engines and water wheels still working, to hear the stories of the millworkers and learn the arduous and dangerous work done by children. To me it was raw material for the book, to Jack it was a window into the way his mother, and generations of his ancestors, worked.
I came home full of enthusiasm. I should have put my notes and photographs away and finished the other book I was now revising. But you know that feeling when you have got up a head of steam and you just have to forge ahead.
I seemed to have a viable plot. I don’t map out everything beforehand. Often the twists and surprises that occur in the heat of the writing are better than things you think up in cold blood beforehand. The writing went at a cracking pace. Before I knew where I was, the end was looming before me. But I realised with dismay that the book was only going to be two-thirds of the length I needed. By failing to give the book long enough to mature in my mind I had swept through my plot material without the usual twists and turns which usually occur without my planning them.
Don’t panic, I told myself. There is more story in there. You just haven’t taken the time to tease it out and explore it. At the last moment, what I had hoped for happened. A new character suddenly appeared in the climax scene. As soon as I discovered him I knew that he had been there all along. Who else could have been driving that car which had appeared to be a red herring? There had to be several new scenes further back where he met the protagonists. A whole new strand in the story was unravelling.
And what about that ancestor who had first attracted me to write this story? The handloom weaver who had reinvented himself at the Industrial Revolution as a herbalist. Surely he needed to play a bigger part in the story?
Cue the neighbour of the cousin with whom my protagonists were staying. He’d had no more than a mention before. The moment he came visiting he began to take shape. An industrial chemist, put out of work by the recession. And chemistry was proving to have links with the past, in the medical botanist’s concoctions, as well as with the plot in the present. It’s lovely when ideas occur to you instinctively and then prove to have tie-ins with the rest of the book which you hadn’t consciously planned.
I was taking a risk. I should have been more patient. But for a creative writer, over-enthusiasm can be more productive than cooler common sense.
Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick.
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