I have just written the denouement for ‘Speaking In Silence’, and it’s prompted me to talk about the subject and what I learnt from the process of writing the novel.
All my novels tie up at the end, but they don’t always come with a classic denouement. The closest I came was in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third Clearwater novel, where James Wright explains the villain’s motivation and method. ‘Speaking In Silence’ is slightly different to other mysteries I’ve written because it’s more of a ‘What are they doing?’ mystery for the reader, who won’t know what until the climax, and won’t know how until the last scene, the denouement.
What is a Denouement?
The word is borrowed from the French and originates in Latin, as this snippet from Etymonline tells us:
1752, from French dénouement “an untying” (of plot), from dénouer “untie” (Old French desnouer) from des- “un-, out” + nouer “to tie, knot,” from Latin nodus “a knot,” from PIE root *ned- “to bind, tie.”
[PIE = The roots of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language are basic parts of words that carry a lexical meaning, so-called morphemes.]
In other words, denouement means to untie a knot. In literary terms, it means the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Or, as the dictionary also states: the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.
In other-other words, it’s that bit at the end of an Agatha Christie when Poirot stands in the drawing room and tells the assembled characters who did it and how. Of course, the technique is used in all forms of literature and creative writing, and doesn’t have to pertain to a crime story. The denouement of Romeo and Juliet happens after the two main characters are dead, for example, even though we all saw how they died.
What to Consider When Writing a Denouement
The following is based on my experience. There are plenty of free writing-advice websites that will give their own views, but having just looked at a few, they are very similar to what I worked out for myself.
Keep notes as you write towards the end
First of all, as I wrote my way through the first draft of Speaking In Silence, I made a note every time a character was seen to do something with no explanation; every time I dropped in a question mark for the reader if you like. This was to make sure I didn’t leave any knots still tied at the end. I do this with every novel, and it’s a good way to avoid the trap of ‘I’ll remember that for sure’, only to say later, ‘What was it I had to remember?’
The notes also help me see if I have given too much away to the reader, and if I need to take out anything too obvious. Thinking about ‘Silence’, I’m worried the reader will catch on to what’s happening well before the end, and so the climax won’t be a surprise. (It doesn’t have to be. I’ve found readers are as happy to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming’ as they are to have proved themselves right.)
Don’t Witter on for too Long
Says he… My denouement happens in dialogue, and I’m not sure if that’s the done thing or not, but it’s what I have done. The chapter is currently 4,000 words long, but it’s not all explanation. Some of it is character thoughts, reactions and other story matters, and the explanation of how they did it comes from four characters, not one, so there is more than one voice, and more than one point of view. They are explaining themselves to Lord Clearwater, so we are in his head, and when I felt the others were being too detailed, I had him slow them down because I imagined that’s what the reader would also be thinking.
I was conscious of not repeating what the reader already knew. They would have seen X do this and that, and the idea of the denouement isn’t to go back and relive the action, it’s to explain the reason for the action. Yes, you have to place the explanation in context, but that can be done in a few words. Also, once something has been explained, there’s no need to repeat the explanation from another character’s point of view. In my scene, with four people untying the knots, I made sure they all contributed, but they only contributed something new or added a detail that cleared up another question mark.
Show Not Tell
That old chestnut again. Think about that Agatha Christie scene when Poirot has everyone in the drawing room, the dining car or wherever, and you’ll see he does a lot of talking. Now think film, and you’ll notice there are flashbacks showing the action. That’s one way of giving the explanation, but it’s a filmic one. The way to present a ‘show’ denouement is to write a scene where the action unknots the rope, rather than dialogue doing it for you. It’s not easy, and in my opinion, some stories require a dialogue explanation. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the action during the book, there would be no deepening mystery. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the climax, it would have cluttered up the pace. The only way I could make it work in ‘Silence’ was to have the four characters tell Clearwater — who knows what they have done — exactly how they did it.
Keep to the Rules
Although it’s right at the end of the book, my denouement still keeps to the rules of character arc and development, scene structure, location, description and pace. It’s not just one long dialogue of this-then-that. There is some character-created humour, we come away with the sense that a particular character has changed, and we know where we are (Clearwater’s drawing room with the footman coming and going). As well as all that, the scene ends with a great big question mark which will lead us into the next instalment. Not exactly a cliff-hanger because the reader knows the answer to the question, but the characters don’t.
Other Advice Answered
I pulled a few random tips of denouement writing off the internet. I’ve justified my ending against them.
Keep it short. Each part of my explanation is short, but there are a lot of things to explain, and that, I did on purpose.
The denouement validates the story. I always aim for this (see the end of ‘Fallen Splendour’ for my favourite story validation). The denouement validates what has changed for a character or a situation.
Convey a new normal. I have left the reader knowing a particular character will now be better off, and one will be worse off. That is their new normal.
Characters’ futures. Similar to the new normal; the conflicts have been resolved, and normalcy returns to the characters, although that normalcy might/should be changed. I’ve also put in a question mark, and the denouement is followed by a short epilogue which takes us towards the next story.
Denouement is an essential conclusion to plotted conflict, while the epilogue is an optional afterward in which the author shows readers how characters have fared after the events chronicled in the work.
In ‘Speaking In Silence’, the epilogue concerns the villain and leads us into the next story. I now have a completed first draft and can set about rewriting the whole thing and improving it, all the while, aiming towards that all important denouement.
‘Speaking in Silence’ should be ready by July, and you can keep up to date with its progress on my weekly Wednesday WIP blog.
On our imaginary train journey from London to Larkspur, Speaking in Silence is now on platform one at Plymouth station. We have two legs to go, from Plymouth to Liskeard, and from there to Bodmin. Or, in writing terms, we have the remainder of the climax to write followed by the denouement, the ‘how it was done’ section.
I am at 85,000 words with approximately another 10,000 to go (plus all the rewriting and editing), and last night, I left my characters at the Savoy Hotel’s French dining room, in London, on March 26th 1891. They were among good company, being in the presence of Prince Albert Victor, Sir Arthur Sullivan, WS Gilbert, Gladstone and other notables of the time. The Clearwater crew are represented by Archer, Silas, Jasper, Mrs Norwood and some of the Larkspur Academy men, and on the journey, we have met several others from the large cast of both Clearwater and Larkspur mysteries.
There’s a reason for the cast being so large, and that will become clear in the next novel, as yet untitled, and the one after that which will finish the series, The Larkspur Legacy. But those are other journeys for other days.
Right now, I am dealing with an unusual mystery novel, because the mystery is for the reader (I hope), who should be asking, ‘What are they up to?’ It’s one of those where the characters and I know more than the reader does until the reveal at the climax. When I rewrite, I will need to check I haven’t given too much away while also making sure what clues I do drop are sufficient to hold the reader’s intrigue. I am sure I will find out when husband Neil reads the second draft for me, but that will be on the return journey to London.
Ah, we are now pulling out of Plymouth, and I must get back to the Savoy Hotel and the great reveal…
I’ve often been asked how I come up with the titles for my novels, so today, I thought I’d look at a few and explain how they came about.
Just the other day on Self-Publishing School, Chandler Bolt wrote a piece titled ‘Book title ideas: Choosing your own & generators to use.’ In his article, he says titles are short hooks that advertise your book by using the fewest possible words, and suggests that potential readers take less than five seconds to decide whether or not to buy the book. Some things to bear in mind, he says, are to
make the title memorable,
make sure its genre-appropriate and
make it intriguing.
I agree with everything he says in his article (it’s well worth reading), and it caused me to reminisce about how I came up with some of my titles.
What Comes First, the Title or the Story?
Good question. I just experimented with a book title generator and, to be frank, wasn’t impressed. It was a basic thing where you selected an adjective and a noun, and it bunged the in front of random words. It generated things like ‘The Enchanted Pencil’, ‘The Imaginary Vase’ and ‘The Crazy Coffin‘. Okay, fun if you’re looking for inspiration and you don’t mind every book title starting with The, but it wasn’t really my style. I could have done better by opening a dictionary at random and picking the first two words I came across.
Actually, let’s try that…
The Queer Informant The Predynastic Deuterium The Putty Cushion
Now we’re just being silly. Let’s get back on track. Where in the world did ‘Deviant Desire’ come from?
Deviant Desire started out as Something Lamplight, or it might have been Something Gaslight, because I wanted a title that reflected the background of the story, Whitechapel in 1888, during the time of the Ripper murders. As I was writing the book, I thought more about the title, and suddenly ‘Deviant Desire’ popped into my head. I hadn’t read that article I just mentioned or anything like it, so this was instinctive, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
Deviant Desire works on several levels. The main character, Silas Hawkins, is a renter and a trickster, so he’s a deviant. He’s also gay and so is the other MC, Lord Clearwater, so according to the lores of the time, they are both deviants. When they meet, they fall for each other, crash, bang, wallop style, so there’s your desire.
Meanwhile… The villain of the piece is killing young men as a way of laying a trap for our hero. He, the villain, has a deviant desire, not only to trap the hero, but a desire to kill, and if that’s not deviant, I don’t know what is.
The title for the follow-on novel to Deviant Desire, Twisted Tracks, took a little longer to come up with, but it works in the same way. A villain is enticing the hero to a confrontation, and he does it with various twisted clues, including an anagram, a twisting of words into other words. Our hero and his friends follow the clues, the tracks left by the villain, and everything climaxes on a runaway steam train which, of course, runs on tracks. Until they run out…
The trend continues in book three of the Clearwater Mysteries with Unspeakable Acts. The trend of using succinct two-word titles, an adjective and a noun, but without ‘The’ in front of them. While thinking of this title, I wanted to continue using words that the Victorians used for gay men and their sexuality. So far, we’ve had deviant and twisted, and another common thing was to refer to gay sex as an unspeakable act. The story of book three concerns a performance at the Royal Opera House at which someone is due to make a speech, but if he does, he will be assassinated, therefore he can’t, or, in other words, his speech is unspeakable. The performance is of an opera, so the word ‘acts’ has a couple of other meanings (the division of a play, what the actors do on stage), and it all ties together with the background theme of the Clearwater collection, the dangers of being gay in Victorian times.
I could outline every single one of the 11 Clearwater titles, but it would become repetitive. In summary, though, they all have double meanings: Fallen Splendour (book 4) refers to a line from the major clue of the mystery, ‘The splendour falls on castle walls’, and also refers to someone’s downfall; Bitter Bloodline (book 5) refers to the taste of a Transylvanian wine, a blood feud, and Bram Stoker; Artful Deception (book 6) centres on an artwork and theatrical tricks, while hero and villain try to outwit and deceive each other; Negative Exposure (book 9) refers to being photographed naked, having the negatives of those photos printed and therefore exposed, and because of that, a man’s secret coming into the open, thus, also being exposed.
You’ll note that for books seven and eight, the titles differ. We’ve moved on from the use of deviant et al., and the titles are longer. Home From Nowhere (book 7) was a line that came to me when the characters were speaking. As often happens, I let them speak and, later, edit what they say. In this one, Fecker says to Jasper something like, ‘Like me, you have come from nowhere’, and later, Jasper says to Billy, ‘I feel like I’ve come home.’ Oh yes, I thought, Jasper (the MC) has come home from nowhere, and there we go.
One of a Pair(book 8) is another play on words. Jasper is one of a pair of young men falling in love, and Billy is the same as he’s the other half of the pair. There’s another meaning to the title which I can’t tell you in case you haven’t read the book, but if you do, you will realise the relevance.
Banyak & Fecks, The Clearwater Prequel
Banyak & Fecks was the first time the title came before the story. I’d been thinking about a novel detailing how these two friends met. Deviant Desire opens with them in the East End, and they are already very close by the time we meet them, so how did they get there? My husband said there should be a prequel telling us just that, and I wanted to write something more character driven rather than full-on mystery. I wanted it to be about Banyak & Fecks, as they call each other, so that had to be the title, and it is.
The Larkspur Series
Still trying to keep to the title-writing rules of catchy, intriguing and memorable while sticking to my own deviant desire for titles to have more than one meaning while being relevant to the plot, I moved into slightly different territory for the Larkspur series.
Guardians of the Poor, the title of book one, refers to the real guardians of the poor, those who oversaw, ran and were responsible for the workhouses. It also refers to the two main characters, and how they do something which improves the life of those in a workhouse; they become guardians of the poor in another sense.
Keepers of the Past keeps up the rhythm of the series titles, and refers to archaeologists and a cult member (perhaps), while Agents of the Truth completes the three-part telling of Dalston and Joe’s story. It also refers to archaeologists and men working for the Clearwater Detective Agency.
For book four in the Larkspur series, I wanted something a little more atmospheric, and I wanted to get away from the rhythm of ‘Plural Noun of the Single Noun’ of the first three books. Seeing Through Shadows gives us a verb, a preposition and a noun, so a different rhythm, while remaining succinct and a little intriguing. Do we see through shadows? Aren’t we just seeing what they are shadowing? I mean, if there’s a shadow on the wall, are we seeing the shadow or the wall? In the story, we’re not sure what we’re seeing, so that fitted rather well.
I am currently working on Speaking in Silence, which is an oxymoron, because you can’t speak without making a sound. Yes, okay, so we have sign language and writing, but that, strictly speaking, isn’t speaking. Speaking in Silence refers to those things which are left unsaid, and in the story, there are many of them. The most difficult ‘unsaid’ part of writing this novel has been keeping information from the reader; that’s the thing I am not saying; the silence if you like. The reader will find out what’s going on in the end, but I wanted to keep them in the dark for as long as possible. I hope it works. We will have to wait and see. Also in this story, there are lots of things that the characters don’t say, but in the gaps in conversations, they and we understand their meaning… It’s complicated to explain, and you’ll have to wait a couple of months before you can read it when I hope all will be revealed.
I’ve written more than the Clearwater and Larkspur series. You might have heard of or read The Mentor Collection, for example. They are ‘Older man mentors younger man in love, lust and a few other things’, kind of stories. The titles aren’t tricky, though again, there is a pattern. All four are ‘The Mentor of…’ somewhere, and that somewhere takes the classic form of adjective and noun. Here, the adjective suggests loneliness or isolation (reflecting the younger, lost-his-way character) and the noun is something stable, a home (representing the older character).
Thus, we have: The Mentor of…
Wild Hill Farm
Barren Moor Ridge
Lone Marsh House
Lost Wood Hall
As Wildhill Farm, Barrenmoor Ridge etc., as they are also place names.
As usual, I am rambling on now, and I am sure you got the point some time ago. So, to finish, I thought I’d return to that random title generator and come up with some more Mentor titles. This isn’t just for fun, I also want to highlight what I believe: that the author should come up with the title, and not use one of these random word-pickers, although they might spark ideas for stories. Perhaps. How about reading…
The Mentor of the Perfect Fireplace
The Mentor of the Haunted Coffin
The Mentor of the Happy Wheelbarrow
The Students of the Windy Wind
Remember: keep the title succinct, intriguing, genre-specific and, if you can, consider the rhythm.
See you on Wednesday for more WIP news, have a great weekend and happy reading!
If you have been following the ‘Speaking in Silence’ journey from London Paddington to Bodmin, you will know that it’s been an interesting train ride so far. In the word count scheme of things, I’d say I was now at Exeter, being at roughly 72,000 words, with the destination being 100,000 or thereabouts. After some shunting around in a yard several miles back, I have had a clear run from Bristol, and am now approaching the final reel. The final ‘act’ as they say in film terms.
I started the ‘Speaking in Silence’ journey knowing that I wanted it to be about two characters who appeared in the last book, but who we don’t yet know; Henry Hope and Edward Hyde. In this story, Edward is the protagonist, and yet, not only does he hardly speak, he also hardly communicates. That poses a few challenges for the author. Unlike Joe Tanner, who is deaf and communicates through sign language, Edward has taken a vow of semi-silence. The only person he speaks to is Henry, and Henry knows why. We, the reader, come to learn why Edward chose to do this, and we come to understand there is only one thing that will enable him to feel able to speak again. Justice. Therein lies the plot of the novel.
That was what I started with 72,000 words ago, and the rest I have, quite literally, made up as I have gone along, including the characters of Henry and Edward and a hell of a lot of backstory, which trickles out over time. I have used the flashback technique, and it was only while writing those scenes that I came to know the characters. They introduced themselves to me while Henry was telling me his and Edward’s story if you like, and that didn’t happen until I was quite a way into the story. That’s why we had the shunting around a few miles back, and I had to backtrack and change the point of view of some of the earlier chapters. If there’s a lesson there, it’s ‘know your characters before you start’. (A note to fellow authors, if you would like to stretch your character’s bio then you can always drop in for a ‘character interview’. Contact my PA for more details firstname.lastname@example.org).
To give you a flavour of the novel, and without giving anything away, here’s a short excerpt from the first draft – unedited so excuse any errors. The skeleton is a character who will remain nameless for now, and I have changed the name of the second character to ‘John’ so as not to spoil things for you. John, the villain, is going to see the other villain at his new lodgings in Greychurch:
The skeleton’s previous lodgings above the ‘Princess Alice‘ had, John thought, been about as low as a man could go, but when he took a deep breath and entered the ‘Hops and…’ as the broken sign described it, he realised he had been wrong.
His foot fell on a rat, but it didn’t squeal because it was dead, but the child playing with it gave him a mouth of abuse, which he ignored. Dishevelled heaps, rather than people, sat at the few tables, some sucking on pipes whose fumes hardly disguised the stench of damp clothes, sweat and something else he didn’t like to think about, while across the room, no more than ten feet from the door, two men stood at a trestle table that served as a bar, while three rested against it on the floor, either drunk or dead. The most unnerving thing about the place, however, wasn’t the landlord with wooden teeth, only one eye and one hand, nor even the miasma of fire, pipe and opium smoke, but the silence. No-one even looked at him, no-one jereed at a well-dressed man from the west of the city entering their destitute realm, and nobody, apart from the child, made a sound.
These people, if he could call them that, might still be able to hear, he thought, and so he prepared to whisper to the disfigured landlord. As he leant over one of those asleep at his feet a movement to his right caught his eye. One of the heaps unwound itself from the table it had been slumped across and dragged itself to its feet. It said nothing, but a skeletal hand emerged from the sleeve of its black gown and beckoned to John like death, before gliding towards a door beside the makeshift bar.
Pleased to be with someone he knew, albeit vaguely and nefariously, John followed the skeleton through to a passage, and down a set of steps to a cellar. Ahead, the scurry of clawed feet suggested their path was clear, but still, when they arrived below ground, several pairs of pink eyes glinted in the candlelight, watching from the crevices for the time they could reclaim their dominion.
More on my WIP blog next Wednesday, but don’t forget to be here on Saturday for my other weekly post.
A notorious slum and a dirty old man have led me to write a new book, ‘Speaking in Silence.’ To follow the progress of this novel, the fifth in the Larkspur Mystery series, tune into my Wednesday WIP blog, but to know how research and detail improve your novel, read on.
The Old Nichol was an infamous slum area of Bethnal Green in East London, and I’ll get onto that part of my research later. First, though, I want to tell you what inspired me to write ‘Speaking in Silence’, and it starts with a man on a train.
One night in April 1891
On the night of April 20th 1891, a young man by the name of Christopher Richmond was travelling by train from Horsham in Sussex to East Croydon in Surrey. He was followed into an empty compartment by a man called Charles Fyffe, later described in the newspapers as ‘elderly.’ This man, it seems, had a penchant for young lads. Christopher was 16, worked for the railway as a goods clerk, and had a disability. During the first part of the journey, Christpher said, the man carried out various acts of indecent assault upon him. The precise details are not mentioned in the newspapers of the time, as they considered these things not palatable for the Victorian reader, but despite Christopher’s objects, Fyffe continued his advances even after the pair changed trains at Three Bridges. When they reached East Croydon, Christopher made a complaint to the authorities, and Fyffe was arrested. The young man did the right thing, and was prepared to testify in court, which he later did. You’d think that would have been the end of the matter.
Mr C.A. Fyffe, the accepted Liberal candidate for East Wilts, who was summoned to Croydon Police Court yesterday, charged with a serious assault in a railway carriage between Horsham and Croydon, on Monday week, did not appear.
Who was willing to appear, however, was a heap of character witnesses prepared to speak to the high literary and social character of the accused, viz., the Dean of Westminster, Professor Jowett, Sir Horace Davey, Sir George Grove, Mr Benson, London Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr Robinson, editor of the Daily News, and others…
A little more research made it clear to me that there was more to this case than a well-to-do older man pulling out the big guns to save his reputation, and more reading uncovered a few more facts. Fyffe had worked for a newspaper. When arrested, he gave a false name to the police (three times), and later, tried to kill himself.
Right, I thought, this is a case that needs looking into.
I spent some time in the online newspaper archive, and looked around elsewhere for mentions of this case. I found a very detailed presentation of it on Rictor Norton’s wonderful website where he lists incidents such as this as reported in the newspapers of the time, and he’d found more information than I could track down. I have taken inspiration for other stories from this site (the idea for ‘Guardians of the Poor’ came from here), and I suggest anyone writing gay fiction set in the 19th century bookmarks his site as essential reading. Click the link in the citation to lose yourself in historical fact.
Rictor Norton (Ed.), “Prosecution and Suicide of Eminent Historian, 1891”,
If you head there and read the full reports, you will get all the details of the case, but what attracted me to this story was my own outrage. More facts come out as you read the history, and it becomes very clear that Fyffe pulled in the ‘old boy’ network to protect himself. You can, in my opinion, see the bias in newspaper reports, such as one that came out in the Western Chronicle which uses phrases such as Mr. Fyffe was made the subject of a terrible charge by a lad… Unnerved at his frightful position… a moment of the direst confusion… the deep sympathy of his political friends and foes are with him… No-one who knows him believes him for one moment to be guilty.
There is no such sympathy towards young Christopher, whose testimony was called into question. Why didn’t he get out of the carriage at the next stop? (His disability meant it would have taken time, and he might have missed the train.) Why didn’t he report it before East Croydon as there were several stops along the way? (Because East Croydon was his final destination, and to report it elsewhere would have meant he didn’t get home that night.) Maybe he was complicit or tried to blackmail Fyffe? Christopher swore he was not and did not. From his testimony, he sounds like a very upright young man, after all, he was in a decent clerical job at the age of sixteen.
Outrageous newspaper bias in favour of a man who wrote for the Daily News, I decided. I would have written a strongly worded letter to the Western Chronicle had I not been 131 years too late.
The intrigue continues…
It turned out that the ‘elderly’ Mr Fyffe was 42 (another report puts him at 45, either way, hardly ‘elderly’), and the reason he didn’t appear at the first hearing was because he’d tried to cut his own throat. Later, when he was able to appear, he was brought in on a stretcher. (Drama queen?) His old cronies testified to his good character, and when the case came before the grand jury to decide if it should go to trial, even the judge said something like, ‘Well, we know this kind of thing goes on…’ as if it were nothing.
In charging the grand jury, Mr. Justice Mathew said that what first struck one about the case was that the acts were improbable, seeing that the charge was made against a man of mature years. [Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter. 18 July 1891]
Not only were the newspaper reports biased in favour of Fyffe, so was the Justice. It was improbable that a respected, mature man, standing to be elected as an MP might fancy a lone 16-year-old trapped in a railway carriage by his disability at night and try and touch him up…? Improbable my arse.
In the end, the case never went to trial. Not only was Christopher pilloried in the press and his good name called into question (he was counter-accused of being complicit by asking for ‘a present’ in return for sex, an allegation he denied) but he never got his justice, and that’s what’s at the heart of ‘Speaking in Silence.’
There’s a lot more to this case, and for my novel, I have used it as inspiration, mixing in some facts, but bending the truth in places for dramatic and fictional effect. If you were wondering, Christopher had lost a foot (not sure how, possibly an accident on the railways as his father worked for the company and they lived in railway dwellings in Brighton). Living away from home in a decent job aged only 16, he presented a very reasonable case in court, but because Fyffe know all those important people and was (later) an MP, an Oxford Fellow and an author, the chances were clearly weighted on the side of the villain.
You are Allowed to Fictionalise Facts
To be honest, reading the case makes my blood boil. Happily, though, I found out that Christopher eventually married, and emigrated to Australia, where he may well still have descendants. As for Fyffe… He died the following year ‘from the effects of his self-inflicted wounds.’ We may celebrate at that, but it still left Christopher with no justice.
For ‘Speaking in Silence’, I have moved the incident back a few years, so it forms part of the backstory of my mainly silent character, Edward Hyde (the Christopher Richmond of the story). It was, I thought, about time we found out about him and his constant companion, Henry Hope. Henry and Edward are 18 and 20 respectively and have a genius for science. How, I wondered, is that going to be useful in getting justice for Edward? That is one of the mysteries the reader will, I hope, enjoy as the story progresses.
The other part of the novel is the backstory of Edward and Henry, and for that, I turned to a copy of ‘The Blackest Streets’ by renowned author, Sarah Wise.
The Old Nichol
Even if you have never lived in London, or even England, you may well have heard the nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ This rhyme was first published in the ‘Pretty Song Book’ by Tommy Thumb in 1744, and it seems to have appeared simply as what it is: a rhyme that lists several London churches. One theory is that the song was written to help strangers find their way around the city, but whatever it was created for, it mentions Shoreditch.
When will you pay me?Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch
The bells in question are those of Saint Leonard’s church, a grade one listed building built in 1740, and a good friend of mine used to live right next door. As I only lived a mile away up the Kingsland Road, and as Julian’s flat was on the way to our regular drinking haunts around Shoreditch and Old Street, I was forever in the area. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was visiting the part of London once known as the Old Nichol, one of the worst slums in the city up until it was demolished and replaced by the Boundary Estate in 1900.
If you look on Google maps and search for Shoreditch or St Leonard’s church, you’ll see the A10 road running south to meet with Commercial Street, and to the east of the church, Arnold Circus, making a wheel-like pattern on the map. That was just about the centre of the Old Nichol, and some of the original roads still exist, namely Old Nichol Street to the south of Arnold Circus, and Boundary Street which runs parallel to the A10. You can find a map of the Old Nichol as it was in 1889 at Horrible Hackney, also there is a plan of the Boundary Estate in 1890. Shoreditch is on the western edge of the imagined ‘Greychurch’ of my Clearwater novels, and on the eastern side of it, I have Limedock (Limehouse). ‘Greychurch’ is a location for several Clearwater stories, and now, part of the backstory of Henry Hope and Edward Hyde. You were wondering when they were going to come back in, weren’t you?
Henry and Edward lived for a while in a room in the Old Nichol, and when I first started thinking about how that would have been, I turned to my usual resources for first-hand research. In this case, VictorianLondon.org and a copy of Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] – Curiosities of “Alley” Life. Those of you who were paying attention a couple of years ago when I was writing ‘Banyak & Fecks’ might remember James Greenwood. He was, allegedly, one of the first investigative reporters, and spent a night in the casual ward of the Lambeth workhouse to experience and report on what casual paupers had to endure. I used that piece of writing to inform a scene in ‘Banyak & Fecks’ and Greenwood and other sources to inform the workhouse scenes in ‘Guardians of the Poor.’ Here, Greenwood writes a report of his findings after a visit to Devonshire Place, one of the worst courts in the heart of the Old Nichol.
There was but one bedstead in the room — a mite of a place; I measured it with my walking stick and found that it was three and a half one way and four sticks the other, and yet it was made to accommodate mother, father, and eight children.
… a tiny room above and below, with broken floors and blackened walls and ceilings so shattered that every step overhead causes the rotten plaster to crumble and fall…
Reading a first-hand account is probably the best place to start your historical fiction writing. Your job is to help a reader imagine where your characters are, as well as who they are and what they do, and with a little research, you can add facts into your story that will help it ‘pop.’ Such facts come from people like James Greenwood and Sarah Wise, and the book I mentioned, ‘The Blackest Streets.’
That book is deeply researched and so well written I’ve found it a bit un-put-down-able, and I’ve learnt much from it. Not only about Poor Laws and government boards, the rather useless legal framework in place to force landlords to repair homes, and the work of officials and charitable bodies in helping the poor, but also a great deal about the people my characters would have lived among. Not everyone was a ragged, starving pauper withering away on a death bed and devoid of hope, as today’s films might have us believe (although there were plenty of unfortunates like that, of course). What comes from reading reminiscences of the place is the ‘get on with it and make do’ attitude of many residents. The way neighbours looked after each other (when they weren’t beating up each other or their families), the ‘honour among thieves’ mentality if you like, and the way the criminal gangs worked, and the police kept a distant eye.
The book explains the housing conditions, and in one section, describes how, in some dwellings, the lavatory was in the back ‘yard.’ To get to it, the residents had to descend to the windowless cellar, and bent double beneath the ground floor floorboards, walk through the cellar to the back door. This they would do as quietly as they could so as not to disturb the family who lived in the cellar.
It’s that kind of detail that I like to put into my novels: real and detailed, and in this case, almost unthinkable. This kind of research pays off, and these kinds of details really bring your story to life.
As I work my way through ‘Speaking in Silence’, I find myself putting in such things as the factual times of trains my characters take. For this, I refer to my railways’ guru who sends me the times and changes necessary for a fictional character to get from A to B on March 22nd 1891, as taken from the timetables of the day. Or, as another example, I find a character standing on Blackfriars Bridge contemplating how far away the railway bridge is, and how high above the Thames he is standing. The old railway bridge isn’t there anymore, just its pillars, but the road bridge was roughly 14 meters above river level.
Research Leads to Detail
Research leads to detail, and detail leads to a more fulfilling read for your reader. It also leads to the author doing a lot of reading and learning a lot of facts along the way. As a final example: Did you know that when someone talks in their sleep, they are giving you a somniloquy, or, I suppose, somniloquising? Well, you do now, and you never know when that snippet will come in handy.
The WIP news this week is that I am up to 55,000 words and chapter fifteen of the Larkspur Mysteries book five, Speaking in Silence. On our train journey from London to Cornwall, we have reached somewhere around Bath or Bristol, and that’s appropriate because it means I’ve just met the villain of the piece coming the other way. Chapters 14 and 15 are set on a train journey from Cornwall to Devizes, in Wiltshire, and in the story, the train has recently left the city of Bath.
You know when you get halfway through a draft and suddenly think to yourself, ‘Something’s not right’? Well, I had that twice during the last week, so some of my workload has been fixing a couple of things, or rather, fixing one, and thinking about how to fix the second.
In the first instance, I’d left what they call a plot hole and needed to go back and fill it in. This meant adding an extra chapter so that what a character did next would make sense.
In the second instance, I realised I have started the story from too many points of view. Simply put, it opens with the villain, cuts to Silas’ POV, then to Frank’s, then back to Silas’, and then there’s a backstory section from Henry and Edward’s points of view. The story was originally to be about Frank and his involvement with someone else’s story, but now I am further in, I realise it’s not about Frank at all. So, the earlier scenes that are from his POV need to be from someone else’s, Henry in this case, and so they need rewriting.
Hey ho! That’s how it goes. Now, having told you this, I am going to get on with chapter 16 and move the story into its second half.
In showbiz, they say, ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’ When writing a novel, I say, it’s how you start and finish.
While standing in the bookshop or browsing through Amazon, many people will pick up a book and look at the cover first. If the cover and title grab them, they will then read the back blurb. If that intrigues them, they will read the first line, and if that appeals, they may read the first page. After your cover, title and blurb, your first page is the most important part of your book, so today’s blog is about what a first page should do. You can expand that to the first couple of pages or the first chapter, but really, what the first page should do is grab the reader and drag them into the story.
Before we get into an examination of what’s on your first page, I wanted to have a look at some opening sentences, just to make a point:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
And the point is, it’s not only the first chapter or page which should engage, the very first line should too. When I wrote the first line of The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge, I wanted to sum up the entire story, set the background and inspire the reader to look forward. This is what I came up with:
John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.
Barrenmoor Ridge is about a mountaineer coming to terms with the death of his lover while rescuing a younger man from a mountain and falling back in love. The first page opens halfway through a scene, as all good scenes should, they say. Having just written that, I thought I’d examine some of my other opening lines to see whether I followed my own advice.
Andrej waited until the darkest hour before he untied his wrists with his teeth, and freed his feet from the knots.
You can see, there’s something of a formula, but not always. The opening for ‘Other People’s Dreams’, my first novel, is an advertisement:
Do you want to live out my dream?
One yacht, a thousand islands and all the time in the world.
36-year-old guy with the money and the fantasy seeks four fit, young, gay lads to crew his boat in the Greek islands. (No experience necessary)
You must be trustworthy, attractive, loyal, adventurous, uninhibited and free from June through to September with no ties.
All expenses and living allowance paid in return.
Certain strings attached.
Write with photo to Jake, Box No. 2006
The first sentence in your novel is as important as all the others, but is usually the first one someone will read before deciding whether to buy a book. Grab ’em from the start and hold ’em until the end. But before they even reach the end of chapter one, they need to get past the first page…
Meanwhile, on the First Page
One Stop For Writers (OSFW) released a guide, ‘How to Craft a Winning First Page’ (see the image), and I am using that as a guide while I examine the openings of two of my novels. The details of each section are on the image, but below, I’m comparing what OSFA suggests against what I did. Bear in mind, I hadn’t read this advice or any like it when I wrote the two novels I’m going to look at, The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge (2018), and Deviant Desire (2019).
The notes on the image expand the OSFW advice, but in summary, it suggests five things a first page should do:
Start in the right spot – begin just before a major event in the main character’s life
Show – basically, don’t start with too much backstory (plenty of time for that later)
Tighten up – don’t be wordy, don’t drag it out (plenty of time for that later too)
Raise a question – create intrigue
Build empathy – make the reader like the MC
How do my two examples compare?
The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge
Here’s the opening line:
John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.
Start in the right spot. Catching sight of the impact character (Gary) is the catalyst for the love story that follows. We also enter the story halfway through a discussion. That’s a common trick used by Shakespeare among many others. Other good ways to open are on a journey in progress, with an argument, with a bang, or right in the middle of some action. When I wrote Banyak & Fecks, I originally started with Andrej (Fecks) standing over the ruins of his burnt-out home and remembering his childhood. That section is still in the first chapter, but it was too slow for an opening. Now we start with him escaping from a camp, stealing back his knife, and running from certain death. A little more grabbing than a character feeling sorry for himself.
But I digress…
Show. I.e., trimming down the backstory. My Barrenmoor Ridge first page contains lines such as, ‘You were talking about another base camp season,’ he said, showing us that John has worked at Everest base camp before, he’s got something to do with mountaineering, and a discussion has happened before we arrived. Showing, not telling, is something that confuses many aspiring authors, and it can be a hard one to get your head around. I tell plot and action all the time, because sometimes you have to, but I always aim to show things like emotion and feeling. Rather than saying ‘he felt sad’, or ‘John was angry,’ show John crying or kicking over a chair and shouting. The reader will imagine more and thus, be drawn further into the story and character. In Barrenmoor Ridge, John is distracted and not concentrating, and he’s shaking because of something or someone he’s just seen.
Tighten up. There are two paragraphs on my first page that tell us where we are, what’s going on, and give us some atmosphere. We are in the climbers’ café in Inglestone, where cigarette smoke hung in the clammy air mixed with the blue fog of over-fried food. That’s enough to set the scene. We don’t need too many other details of the café beyond the tablecloths and plastic bottles of sauce.
Raise a question. Hopefully, the opening line, John’s trembling hand and a couple of other things raise questions. Who did he just see? Why is he trembling? Why is he refusing a job? How will his life change?
Build empathy. In the opening scene/page, John is doing what most of us have done: meeting with someone in a café and having breakfast. It’s what in screenwriting terms they call ‘the normal world.’ However, the second character tells him, ‘Not just any season,’ she said. ‘Possibly your last. You’re not getting any younger.’ So, we now know he’s getting on a bit, it’s a special opportunity, and he’s done it before. Over the page, we learn that John is getting over the death of his lover, so hopefully, that builds more empathy.
Having just reread that opening, I know I could have done better for a variety of reasons, but, in my defence, it was only my second novel as Jackson, and I was still building my style. A year later, I wrote what was to be a standalone novel based around the Jack the Ripper murders (although in an area of London called ‘Greychurch’ where the Ripper was killing rent boys). Deviant Desire then became the first in an ongoing series of Victorian mysteries, but that wasn’t my original intention. Had it been, I probably would have begun the story in exactly the same way.
Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.
Can you see the similarities between that and Barrenmoor? Yeah, well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Start in the right spot. That opening line tells us that the catalyst is on its way; Silas’ life is about to change because of what someone else is doing off stage. The first paragraph goes on to say that even if Silas knew what was to become of him, he wouldn’t have been bothered, because Silas wasn’t the kind of youth to shy from a challenge, not even one that might threaten his life. (Ooh, something dangerous is coming…)
Show. This is about cutting out too much backstory, remember? Well, there isn’t any on the first page, but there is plenty in later chapters. Although this opening is ‘wordy’ in that it is descriptive, that is to set the atmosphere of an October night in London’s East End in 1888. You can’t write about the Ripper and not have atmosphere. Thus, I get a bit Dickensian while making the reader want to know more about Silas’ past:
“In these times, hunger was a keener motivator than sense. It drove need, need drove experience, and in the four years since he had turned his first trick, experience had prepared him for the dangers of life.”
There is some backstory there, four years since he had turned his first trick, but I didn’t really go into detail about those four years until nine books later when I wrote the prequel, Banyak & Fecks, and the story in which those four years come back to haunt Silas, Negative Exposure.
Tighten up. I refer you to the section above about atmosphere. However, the story starts with a bold statement that tells us something major is about to happen to this man who is searching through rubbish leftover at a market hoping to find food. He’s hungry, cold, and he ‘turns tricks.’ We also learn a bit about his character while reading what I hope is suitable and descriptive prose.
Raise a question. As with Barrenmoor, the questions arise from the opening sentence. Who is Silas Hawkins? Why is he searching for coins? Who is the man four miles distant? Why should he change someone’s life? Is the ‘ten years older’ relevant? Will we get an older/younger romance? Later on the page, we learn he’s been turning tricks and we might wonder why, how, and will we get to know more about that?
Build empathy. If you don’t feel sorry for a gamin (street urchin) rooting through trash so he can live, shivering, prostituting himself even during the time of the Ripper and generally not having a pleasant life, then you need to work on your empathy skills. Joking aside, it’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel empathy. Hence, phrases on this page such as Every night on the grimy, gaslit streets was dangerous, and every unlit customer a potential killer, but the threat of starvation gnawed harder than the fear of violence.
A Few Last Words About the First Words
There is a practise in the film script writing world to do with how you introduce a character and how you say goodbye to them. It’s a case of first impressions count, but so do last ones, and the same applies to novel writing. I’m not necessarily talking about the main character here; the rule applies to all characters and to the novel itself. How you meet an entire story is as important as how you meet the MC and others, but so is how you leave it.
Take from the attached advice from One Stop For Writers what you will, but I am going to end with an ending.
In Deviant Desire, we meet Silas on that grimy street, and we leave him 300 pages and one adventure later somewhere entirely different. As for the story, it starts thus:
Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.
By the time I got to the end, I decided it was to be an ongoing series, thus, it ends with a different character whose name I have omitted so as not to spoil the story for you.
Revenge was not something [he] thought he would ever contemplate, but he found the idea of it suited him and, as he ordered an ale, he turned his mind to a variety of ways it might be exacted.
Continued in part two, Twisted Tracks
Remember, it’s about how you start and how you finish. It’s about how you introduce your reader to your story, how they leave the story and how the story leaves them. The mark of good storytelling comes when a reader finishes a book wanting to know what happens next to the people in it. This means they have connected with the characters and their world and don’t want the journey to end. The mark of a good first page is to do the same in reverse: to make your reader want to take the journey in the first place.
You can join me on my writer’s journey by tuning into my regular Wednesday work in progress blog. Currently, we’re journeying through Speaking In Silence, the Larkspur Mysteries book five.
We are now well on the way to Devizes in Wiltshire. In fact, we will be there at any moment. I am comparing the journey of Speaking In Silence to a train ride from London to Bodmin and looking at my old map of the GWR lines, I’d say Devizes was about a third of the way there or 35,000 words in first draft terms. When we reach Bodmin (estimated time of arrival, 100,000 words), we will have to make the return journey via the second and following drafts, but that’s for much later.
Devizes is also appropriate because that is where my villain lives or lived in real life. At least, he was a member of parliament for the area back in 1891 when the story is set. When I say ‘in real life’, I am basing my character on a newspaper article and on a character from it, but because of what he does in the story, I must point out that the real man didn’t do this in real life. He might have done what he was accused of in the newspapers of the time, but the case was never tried, so who can say?
Research this week has seen me looking up chemical reactions, reading first-hand accounts of London’s East End in the 19th century, and the etiquette of a country house Friday-to-Monday, what we now call a weekend. The word ‘weekend’ only came into use just before 1920, so it’s another of those words I can’t use, like ‘okay’, ‘teenager’ or, to a certain extent, ‘adolescent.’ ‘Homosexual’ is another one I shouldn’t use (common usage after 1900, only specialised medical use a few years before), and when my books are filled with homosexual adolescents recounting their okay teenage years at the weekend… Well, I revert to the thesaurus on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Jenine has been researching letters patent and advancement of titles, the process of lobbying for someone to receive an earldom and how that happens. Poor thing.
It’s been a busy journey so far, and we nearly had a derailment around Newbury when I found myself stuck. I had planned an ending, but as the characters started telling me their story, I realised the ending was wrong. I had to think up another direction, and we almost jumped the tracks. Now, though, we’re back on them, and the destination is the same, only with a slight detour. As usual, I can’t tell you too much, but I can say that what the near derailment has done, is force me to write characters as knowing what is going on in the story while not being able to tell the reader. You see, in this book, it’s all about what’s not being said that’s important, and yet an awful lot is said. Hence, Speaking In Silence.
The journey continues…
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