Thursday, 8 October 2020
Spanish Pursuit - The Making of a Book
Spanish Pursuit is the latest novel in The Pursuit Series of books and once again follows the adventures, or mis-adventures, of its central character, Matthew Malarkey. This one is set mainly in Spain but with an opening part that starts in England, Ascot, to be precise.
A question I am often asked is how did a particular book come about? That question covers a lot of subjects including the idea, the locations, the characters and the methodology. I’m sure different writers have different ways of thinking about their books and various methods of creating them, so I can only talk about the things that contribute to the end result from my experience and, in this case, related to Spanish Pursuit. However, there was a similar pattern to the production of the first three books in this series too. So, if you bore easily, look away now!
The idea for Spanish Pursuit kicked in after I attended Royal Ascot a couple of summers back and enjoyed an afternoon’s racing and an extremely pleasant hospitality event. My visit was on Ladies Day (you don’t have to be a lady to attend!). Many racecourses define specific days and, perhaps fuelled by the liberally poured Champagne that was on offer and the pink race badges on display, I got to thinking ‘what if you showed up on the wrong day?’ No reason at all why, ordinarily, such a thought should enter my head, but I write light humour (with a serious angle too) so my imagination kicked in.
Another factor in this element was the other guests enjoying the hospitality areas, all of them anonymous to me apart from the friends I went with. I began to think about the mix of people - maybe some were wealthy enough to do this all the time; perhaps for some it was a one-off day out, a break from the normal work or childcare routine; some of the guests may have been ‘famous’ in their own way, in their communities or their chosen professions (I didn’t actually see any real ‘celebs’), or have achieved great things in life either professionally or personally. The point was, I didn’t know but we were all thrown together that day by one common desire - to have fun and enjoy a part of the great British sporting culture.
That interaction and the possibility of getting the date wrong then created a basic idea for the story (something I will leave alone here as it is better for a reader to discover for themselves). From there it was a matter of developing a plot, planning and the intricacies that go with that. That’s never done on the ‘once upon a time’ basis - by that I mean, you can’t write a book by starting at page one, like we used to do at school as 6, 7, 8 year olds. You have to know where a story is going and, often, with the initial idea, you don’t. It may never go anywhere.
The Spanish Pursuit story took a different direction after I visited Madrid. My visit there had nothing to do with my book (as yet untitled at that point - books can remain untitled late into the process; you are writing the story, not the book) - and was simply a business trip connected to a company I was working with. But, having spent a brief period in the city, I loved the environment and the buzz and, when I returned home, I began to think that the story should go to Madrid. I flew to the city again much later on in the writing process, this time to research city locations properly as it was not sufficient to rely on impressions created by a visit that was unrelated to the story. That last visit was hugely informative and, as a result, a number of city centre locations appear throughout the story which anyone who has visited Madrid might recognise.
Another element in the now evolving ‘Spanish’ angle was a region of southern Spain, Murcia, which I had been to once before and visited again once the story had a solid outline. Again, I won’t refer in detail to the location as it is part of the story and is referenced in the credits. However, I did traipse around some remote areas in order to get a feel for the scenes I had visualised and recorded my explorations on my phone and Go Pro camera (audio and visual). This was important in the research process as it helps you recall in much better detail, when it comes to writing, what you actually experienced - heat, humidity, smells, how you feel in the environment etc. I relied quite a bit on this method when writing Diamond Pursuit and did a lot of similar research in Ibiza, where that book is set.
The actual writing is an interesting process (I think so anyway and if you’ve got this far, maybe you do too!) I mentioned the ‘once upon a time’ theory (no idea if it’s a real theory in writing circles, but it occurred to me as a good description) and, I think people will understand that it would take forever if you tried to write in a purely linear way. That’s not to say that once you have a good story outline that, for example, chapters 7 to 15 won’t be written in a straight, direct method, one after the other - and mostly they are, but it’s not unusual to have written what turns out to be chapters 38, 39 and 40 well before some of the earlier ones. Why? Because you know where the story is going. How? Planning.
Some of my planning involves writing notes on my mobile. Sometimes the basis of a whole chapter will evolve in this way or it simply might be notes based on observation. A particularly good way for me to do this, I’ve found, is to call into a pub early evening, buy a beer and find a quiet table at which I can be undisturbed and write down whatever pops into my head - related to the story, of course!
Another useful practice I find is to create a chart with the character names and create links between them to see who is connected and why they are connected. On a similar note, I have a scene in Spanish Pursuit where several people are seated at a round table, and I wanted to describe their positions in relation to one another (may seem odd but there was a point). To visualise this I drew a circle and placed ‘X’ to denote a position and then a name attached to that. It helped me write the description more easily.
Timelines are an important check to ensure the story is credible. It may seem at odds with writing but I use Excel spreadsheets/workbooks to create timelines - something happens on Tuesday 7th July (I give them actual dates at this stage in order to make a timeline work but the dates don’t necessarily appear in the draft, although the day more than likely will) and then the character is doing something else on Wednesday 8th. Is it feasible that he/she could do this, be there, have accomplished that, in that timeframe? It has to be realistic. This can be fine-tuned down to hours as well in order to time events. In Spanish Pursuit I also used years as a measure in order to cross reference characters’ ages and significant events in their lives. You don’t want stupid errors like... ‘she met him’ and they developed a relationship but it turns out that a poor timeline meant that he was 15 and still at school and she was 38 at that point! A slight exaggeration in this case but used to illustrate the importance of timelines.
And speaking of characters, I’m often asked who they are. Well, they are nobody and somebody at the same time! ‘Nobody’ because they are fictitious, figments of the imagination and ‘somebody’ because you take elements of the characteristics and personalities of people you know or have met and apply them to your fictional characters... and then exaggerate those aspects. But once you have shaped your characters, they actually take on the personalities you have given them and they evolve over chapters and then books. This is particularly evident to the writer when creating dialogue. Although I will know what the scene is about, writing the dialogue becomes easy because the characters interact and just ‘say it.’ Yes, I know people will say, “yeah, but they’re characters in your head so you are saying it,” but my point here is that there is minimal effort required for the dialogue because, perhaps much like an actor’s, the brain slips ‘into’ that character’s mindset.
Anyway, once all of the above has been done and the first draft has been completed, then comes the checking - cutting out words, paragraphs, fine tuning and rewriting ‘chunks.’ Often an early part of the book might need changes because it doesn’t quite fit with something near the conclusion; or something might need to be added near the end to reflect a small detail that occurred in the first chapters; loose ends have to be cross checked too. Whole chapters might need a rewrite. Getting to the last full stop in the first draft is not the end by a long shot!
I am leaving out the detail of spell checking, grammar checks, cutting out overuse of certain words and detailed editing as, frankly, it’s dull stuff, but essential. Obviously, a lot of help is relied upon from others in this regard and credit is given in the book. The only fun part of the post-writing process is getting the artwork sorted for the covers. I like to have my book covers specially designed and, although I have some input and final approval, I rely on the skills of the designer to interpret the ‘feel’ of the book and, most importantly, to apply their own creativity to produce the end result. After all, that’s their profession.
So, after over eighteen months in its creation, Spanish Pursuit finally became a real book. In writing humour often you ask readers to suspend belief and let their imagination run with it - bit like science fiction. Spanish Pursuit is a fun story but does contain a serious story line that underpins each of the misjudgements Matthew Malarkey and his compatriots make.
It is available now and more information can be found on www.pursuitseries.com