Research: Serendipity, Throwing Up and Learning the Truth

DICYik4nQSOM7ARS8PZRbASix months into writing a novel set in a Yorkshire fishing village – with a background of Brexit and immigration – I thought it might be a good idea to go up and find out what one actually looks like.  The story had come out of an exercise which involves writing as if no one will read it – which means it doesn’t much matter what you write.  But at some point, fantasy has to meet reality.

I was lucky enough to pick Staithes in Yorkshire, partly because it is quite idyllic and partly because there are all sorts of interesting things going on.  Trouble is, they’re not the interesting things I had imagined.  Which leaves me with the problem of marrying the two. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first evening was beautiful.  The tide had gone out and I spent ages wandering amongst the rocks and rock pools. I kept seeing surfers (surfers?!) in ones and twos.  As I made my way back, I decided to ask one of them where they were going.  I greeted the next one, and he said, ‘Hello, Mr Gapper!’ He turned out to be Adam, an associate trainer at the company I work for.  Once we’d got over the shock of the coincidence, I told him what I was doing there, and we agreed to meet up.


jNPZCqTcS0u4+kyVyJeZsAHe turned out to be incredibly helpful.  One of the things I’d got wrong was that the incoming tide goes right up to the cliff edge (I had written a character who slept on the beach each night).  He said, oh, you should go along to Port Mulgrave, there’s a little encampment by the sea.  And he was right.  The next day I followed his instruction to ignore the ‘Path Closed’ sign and made my way down the long descent, through the overgrown plants, down a makeshift stepladder and onto a flat lip of land where there are tin huts and wooden constructions.  There, I got talking to the only one of the residents present who told me the whole history.



The first two days had a slightly magical feel.  As if, I just had to remain open and things would turn up.  The next couple of days were harder.  I learned that this was not the thriving fishing village I had imagined. A local book describes only one full-time fisherman, Dave Anders, who has now retired and passed the business on to his son.  I spoke to him, and though it turns out there is actually quite an active, small fishing community, the real business of the village is tourism.  Me, for example.  So, what of my novel?

I booked myself onto a chartered fishing trip.  Now, the first thing to be said here is that I have never fished before in my life, and I found myself on a six-hour trip with seven experienced fishermen. Fortunately, the guy running the trip, Sean Baxter, was really helpful and took my ineptitude in his stride.  He very quickly taught me how to fish and, when he found out I was writing a story, kept making suggestions.  Even when, four hours in, I threw up twice due to motion sickness, he just told me to get everything out and then passed me a couple of tablets.Oghv3n22RZSybx%hN3Vfdg

By then, through the banter on the boat, I had already got a sense of the real tension in the village. A place where, in the 80s, locals were priced out of the housing, and, by the noughties, people with those houses – who now had second homes – were renting out their properties on Air BnB.  The thing you notice as you walk through the village are the number of key lockboxes on the outside of the homes. In the meantime, the original locals either hung on, got by, or moved out.  Adam introduced me to a younger local who confirmed that this is what is happening.  In other words, the same story that is being told up and down the country.

Interesting.  But how to adapt it into my story?  Well, that’s the next challenge.


Let it Grow, Let it Grow

In trying to write novels, I have found myself trying to reconcile two different views.  One says that it is necessary to know the start and end point of your story and preferable to know all stages in between.  The other, that writing should be like jazz, an improvisation with no certain end point: explore possibilities, allow yourself to be diverted.

I have read advocates of the first view say this is something you have to do; of the second, that this is real authorship.  The world of writing is thick with other people’s rules.

I’m enjoying writing my current novel.  It started with an image of a woman looking out over a waterway.  I wrote – discovering characters, writing scenes – and ended up with about 30,000 words.  At a certain point I felt the need to summarise what I had discovered and created a synopsis, then offered it out to my writers’ groups for feedback.

Five characters have emerged.  Their history, their relationships, their wants and needs.  During my early exploration, one of the characters did something very odd to another, and that has become the inciting incident.

Having riffed some more, I have, once again, put that early part of the story into order.  I discovered Amazon’s Storybuilder (see picture above right), which is an easy way to arrange the elements.

Which is a very long way of saying, I find myself moving back and forth between views one and two.

If I could describe a common theme in the way I’ve been working, it would be closer to ‘that’s interesting,’ or, ‘wouldn’t it be enjoyable if…’  There’s growth and paring back.  It’s so far led to some strange characters, an unexpected love story and an inter-familial conflict.

Mostly, it’s just fun to write.  A sort of extended what if? With a licence to go anywhere I want to or use any method that seems to fit.

Perhaps, there are no view-one/view-two purists, they’re just censors I’ve made up in my mind.  But if they exist, I suspect I’d be a disappointment to them.


Write Your Own Self-Help Writer’s Book

One of the problems I have is writing main characters who are slightly depressed and face problems which anyone else could easily solve.  Imagine James Bond going in to speak to Q, who sets aside his design for laser-firing bullets with flying knives and says, ‘Have you tried Meet-Up?’

Typically, at times like these, I wonder if there is a writing book that might help.  This gives me the sense that I’m doing something, while actually just enabling me to procrastinate.

But the original problem is real.

Most of the time we already know the answers to our problems.  We just need a wy to look at them differently.

I began to imagine a self-help book that would specifically address the issue I face and then wrote out what it would say.  I came up with:

  1. Turn it inside out: make the character outward-facing.  Attempting to achieve something concrete in the world but being frustrated in their efforts.
  2. Make the goal simple and clear, with a reward that anyone can identify with: love, money, defeating an enemy
  3. Make their opponents determined to thwart them and in ways that eventually test all of their abilities.
  4. Write scenes that are entertaining but have a sense of risk: trying to attain or achieve something that is important
  5. For each scene or plot, is there a sense of excitement? 

I went back to my plot and began to see how I might refocus it away from the heroine’s internal doubts, towards a challenging situation that she needed to deal with.


Last night, I dreamt I was going to write an autobiography of Daniel Defoe.  Stupid unconscious.  I’m not going to write it – even if it were possible.

What I am doing is entering the second stage of my latest writing project.

I started one earlier this year.  Using the book Ready, Set, Novel, I got some way into writing a whole new story.  Then, in September, I went to the York Writer’s Festival and changed my mind.

The festival gave me a renewed sense of enthusiasm.  I got encouragement from an agent and publisher and attended some interesting workshops.  One piece of advice stuck away.  ‘Write as if no one’s going to read it.’

Having spent the last few months planning and writing a novel under the pressure of how it would be received, this was good advice.

I dumped the old idea and started again.  Using an image that came to me during meditation, I wrote characters as they appeared and followed them where they wanted to go.  Or, wherever seemed most interesting.

25,000 words later, I began to feel a need for direction.  I went back to the Ready, Set, Novel and did the ‘What is the Novel’s Core?’ exercise: trying to find a short sentence to summarise what the novel might be about.

With five characters, all of whom could be the lead, I decided to write brief synopses with each, in turn, as the main character.  It soon became clear who the lead was.  All the other characters became part of her story.  And, what followed was an interesting synopsis.

A final element from York was the suggestion to read Albert Zuckerman’s How to Write a Blockbuster.  This is the kind of idea I like.  A ‘What If?’ that suggests a new structure.  Already, the idea of setting it within an existing or past political event is appealing.

Don’t be surprised if I you see another blog post in a couple of months describing yet another new start.  But, I don’t know…

One Tomato…

I’ve been facing the perennial problem of keeping my word count up.  When in doubt, buy an app.  Last year I tried out Flowstate which deletes all your writing if you pause for more than five seconds.  I wrote a lot of words, but it didn’t produce much that I could use, and the general experience was one of unnecessary anxiety.  Good for a kick-start but not for making progress on a story.

I have run a couple of time management courses recently where people have mentioned the Pomodoro technique: work for twenty-five minutes, rest for five, at the end of four sessions rest for quarter of an hour.  The technique is based on the kitchen timer shaped like a Pomodoro tomato.  Each session is called a Pomodoro, but I am English and refuse to use silly names.

A couple of articles mentioned Focus Time, and as the ticking of an actual kitchen timer would drive me up the wall, I downloaded it.  I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised.  There’s just an alarm at the start and end of each session (and break).  I find that I can comfortably finish 250 words during a session.  It gives me the freedom to check references on the internet or notes from other pages.  The website recommends recapping and reviewing as part of the session, and I have found it useful to pause occasionally to think about what I want to write next.  The thought of the timer does get me started and bring me back quicker from drifting thoughts.

I have found myself getting into a state of flow quickly, even if I’m feeling a bit pessimistic at the start.  There’s a reward star for each session completed and the overall stars are recorded on a simple table and graph.  A sucker for a star chart, I was motivated to do an additional session this morning.

Another advantage is that if I’m on a work day, then I can usually complete a session or two before going which gives me a sense of achievement.

Link to the official website:



In Which the Author Loses Control of his Metaphors and Similes

All sorts of sea imagery occurs: fog, heavy waves, riding the wake of larger boat, but sometimes in the however-long-it-is I’ve been writing (thirteen years and four months) I have found myself becalmed – ooh look, there’s another one.

Stuck, in other words; dispirited, in another.  There seems to be no particular way of dealing with it, other than to hope it passes: a favourable wind blows, clouds part, etc. etc.  Sometimes it looks like it’s going to be fine for a while but, like a weather app, it changes its mind two hours later (don’t get me started on weather apps).

Occasionally, all hope goes.  I stare, like the mariner, over the side of the ship, and know that in thirty years or so I’ll be waylaying a stranger on his way to a wedding, saying, ‘I tried to write a novel once…’

Anyway, the clouds seem to be lifting, which is why I felt able to write this.


(For wiser people saying much the same thing, try:

Bardo, Bardo

Tibetan Buddhists believe in a drifting state between lives, where the soul waits to find its new home.  Me?  I don’t believe in rebirth or reincarnation, but a purposeless state between lives I absolutely get.

A month ago, I submitted my latest, and possibly last, draft of my novel to an editor.  It’s been nine years since I started it, so coming to an end leaves me kicking my heels.  The obvious answer is to get back into writing another.  I already have an incomplete novel, started during a time when I thought the last one was done with, but I’m no longer excited by the premise and the writing now seems clunky.

The ideal was to start something new.  I already had an idea.  A friend of mine is a real character, so it seemed like a good idea to start with him.  Then another character popped up, someone else I know.  Then another, less clear.  I had fun writing a past and present for them, and then began to get stuck.

I have a guilt-provoking belief that proper novels start from character, and even though this is not how I have always worked, I keep trying to do it.  I found myself in a mid-state, flicking between character studies, and searches for purpose.  The main character seemed to be stuck in his house and bedroom, the writing became thinner.  I stopped.

On Saturday, I had a day free and decided to go for a walk in London.  As usual, I headed for the bookshops.  Foyles in Charing Cross Road seems to have regained its status as the place to go, so I went for coffee and cake, then walked down through the floors.  In Reference, I looked through Grammar and saw a display of How to Write books.

One stood out.  Ready, Set, Novel!  Another guilt-provoking belief I have is that you shouldn’t use ‘How to’ books to write a proper novel.  But flicking through, I liked it.  Lots of space and simple exercises.  And something struck me.  I have been writing properly for 13 years.  Two novels completed.  Haven’t I earned the right to go back and have fun?

And it has been.  Scribbling pictures in a blank square; brainstorming places and things that inspire and excite me; randomly assigning the top nine to three ‘novels’; and using the ‘What if?’ etc. etc.

Lord knows what will come of it, but I’m motivated to continue.  And in the meantime, I seem to have recovered my sense of purpose and, maybe, a new life.