This month’s guest post comes from novelist Christina James. Christina James is the pen name of Linda Bennett, Director and Commissioning Editor for Crime at Salt Publishing.
Linda held one-to-ones at this year’s Festival; you can read more about her experiences here: http://christinajamesblog.com/2014/06/22/the-art-is-in-the-telling-at-winchester/
Sausage Hall is the third of the DI Yates novels. They are set in South Lincolnshire, in and around the market town of Spalding. They take place in the present but are rooted in the Spalding of the past. I’m interested in how often the present collides with the past.
Both my grandmothers lived in extraordinary houses. My great-grandparents moved from Castleford to start a general shop in Westlode Street, in Spalding, in the late nineteenth century. The shop occupied what would have been the front room of the house, so the sitting-room was upstairs. It was a shrine to late-Victorian taste: china dogs, small tables littered with many knick-knacks and a large glass case containing a stuffed-bird arrangement. When I knew it in the 1960s, it was exactly as it had been when created by my great-grandmother in her youth seventy years before. Some of the action of In the Family, the first DI Yates novel, takes place in this house.
The house that my maternal grandmother lived in was even more extraordinary. She had been in domestic service since she was fourteen and had trained as both a nursery nurse and a housekeeper. Her last job was companion to a very old lady who lived at a substantial house called The Laurels, in a village called Sutterton. The old lady was the widow of a gentleman farmer much older than she. The Laurels was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were hung with sepia photographs of the husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. They must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s; in many of them, he was accompanied by black women wearing very little except strings of beads. Sausage Hall is set in this house. It is about a murder that occurs in the present, but is strongly influenced by what happened in the house in the past.
I’ve been asked to write about the challenges that faced me when writing Sausage Hall. The greatest was one from which I failed to extricate myself single-handed. I spent Christmas 2013 in Germany to attend a family gathering and immediately travelled to China as part of my day job. Almost as soon as I came home, I had to serve on a jury. These things together conspired to prevent me from writing for a six-week period. Consequently, when I returned to it, my sense of the timescale of the novel was defective and some of the chapters were out of sequence (this also owing to a practice I’m trying to break of writing the main plot and the sub-plot as separate entities). These anomalies demanded a great deal of help from my editor and my keen-eyed daughter-in-law, who, perhaps because English is not her first language, reads very carefully and has an excellent memory. I’ve learnt two lessons from this: to write in sequence if possible and also to make sure that I write daily or at least several times each week, even if I manage only a paragraph or two or a passage that has to be discarded when I revise.
A challenge that faces all authors, but especially if they write series, is to ensure that characterisation and names are consistent across the novel(s). This might sound obvious, but as an editor I’ve found that many authors, just as I do, change the names of their characters during the course of the book or give them attributes which are inconsistent with what’s already been published. Again, I’m lucky to have my daughter-in-law’s help; but it’s discipline that’s demanded here. Particularly, if you’re writing serials, it’s essential to keep a file of your characters’ details: their names, how they look and behave, what they’ve done in the plot(s), their backgrounds and quirks.
I’ve mentioned revision. Revising isn’t exactly a challenge for me, because it’s something I strongly believe in; getting it right is something else. Both as an author and an editor, I’d say my mantra is revise, revise, revise. Never be satisfied with your first draft. I usually revise each day’s writing on the following day. I then revise again when I’ve completed ten chapters or so and again (several times) when the book is finished. But it’s not just about changing what you write to find the mot juste: it’s about making the narrative seem effortless. Ars est celare artem. A challenge indeed.