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Writing The Watermen

What’s it like to write a book? How do you start? In my case it all started during a dinner party with friends. The conversation turned to writing and how difficult it can be to get a project like a book off the ground; the hurdles that must be overcome.

Well, yes, it can be difficult, but not for the reasons one might imagine. I’d been a policeman for many years, an occupation hardly designed to prepare one for the task of writing a full-length novel. Except in one important detail. It provided me with detailed knowledge of a particular field. Like everyone else, I knew something about something and that is what  I wrote about – crime and policing. The fact that my novel is based in an era 250 years before I was born doesn’t matter. I know about policing and I know the mindset of policemen. It makes a huge difference. An example I like to quote concerns the writer Allan Mallinson whose hero is a cavalry officer during the Napoleonic wars. Mr Mallinson is (or was) a cavalry officer in the British Army. You would know that from the minute you began reading his books even if you don’t have a clue what a horse looks like. The authentic detail flows and the reader feels comfortable that the guy knows what he is talking about. Then comes the bit when the cavalry board a ship for France and immediately you’re aware that the author doesn’t have much idea about ships. At the other end of the Channel, the troops get off and, if you’ll excuse the pun, Mr Mallinson is back on firm ground. What I learned, particularly in my years as a journalist, is to stick to the subjects I knew about. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to adhere to as a writer. So when a friend at the dinner party suggested I should write about the river police (where I had spent part of my service), I thought it was a great idea.

Of course, that’s only the beginning and many (happy) hours of research are needed before fingers can connect with keyboards. For me that meant frequent visits to the National Archives at Kew as well as nearly every major museum in London, the Jewish museum in north London, the Thames Police museum in Wapping and many, many others. I even spent time at the National Newspaper Museum in Collingwood. And when I’d finally written what I thought was a masterpiece it was left to the numerous agents to whom I sent the manuscript to let me know what a total mess I had made of the job. I have lost count of the number of times I have re-written the book. And even when it was finally accepted for publication, that was not the end of the writing. My editor – of whom I have the greatest admiration – promptly sent me no less than 26 pages of notes requiring two or three months of further work. It was a very steep learning curve. To (sort of) quote Winston Churchill, the book which had begun life as my mistress had developed into my mother-in-law. But the rewards in terms of a sense of achievement, have been immense. All I have to do now is finish the second book for which I am contracted, and do it in less time that it took me just to polish the first one.

Ah, shucks, it should be a breeze.

PJE

2 Responses to “Writing The Watermen”

  1. Cath Bromley says:

    Hi Patrick
    I think your website looks good, and I really enjoyed reading about the writing of the book!
    I have recently signed up for a creative writing course. To be honest, there is only so much wondering around in the sunshine I can do without going crazy with boredom, and I thought writing might be a good cure for this – it’s something I have always enjoyed doing.
    Something I am struggling with is that, whilst I have some ideas I would love to write about, I have no real idea of a story to hold my jumbled thoughts together. My teacher says this doesn’t matter and stories evolve in many different ways. As you have been there and done it, I’d be really interested to learn whether you knew broadly what your story was before you started writing, and whether it remained intact despite redrafting and so on, or whether a germ of an idea took on a life of its own in the writing process to become your story. Or perhaps neither of these…!
    If you have a spare minute from writing River of Fire I’d love to hear from you!
    Best wishes
    Cath
    PS My sister is coming out to visit me in Australia next April and she is primed to buy me a copy of The Watermen immediately on publication and to bring it over – I can’t wait!

    • Patrick says:

      Hi Cath,

      I think your teacher is absolutely right. There are, I think, only a few pre-requisites for writing a book and two of these are a love of writing and the germ of an story idea. When I started to think about The Watermen I had very little notion of the story line and even less idea about the period I wanted the story set in. From the sound of things you are in much the same situation now.
      May I suggest that you take time to think (while wandering around in the Australian sunshine) about which specific area you want to write on. Take a small notebook with you and always keep it close by. I guarantee that you will forget some of your best ideas unless you write them down immediately.
      After you have settled on The What, move on to a very loose story-line – maybe five lines in your notebook covering start, middle and end. This initial note will bear absolutely no resemblance to the finished product but it will give you a pointer around which to write a more detailed synopsis. On that subject I can’t tell you how important my own synopsis was to me. It enabled me to see where the story was going much more quickly than the writing of a whole chapter – by which time much of the detail of the previous chapters had been been forgotten. Many a time it helped to prevent me writing myself into a corner. The sysnopsis (or perhaps ‘plan’ might be a better word) can be changed far more easily and quickly than a laborously written chapter.
      You ask if the story has a life of its own. You bet it does. It’s what I meant when I said your initial notes will bear no resemblance to the finished manuscript. Of course you have to have some idea of the plot and the characteristics of the main people in the book – age, height, what they look like, good/bad humoured etc etc but don’t be afraid to ditch them in favour of new, more exciting personalities. Nor should you be afraid of completely changing the middle and end of the story. But see my comments about the plan or synopsis. In River of Fire a couple of characters were supposed to have walk on/walf off parts, but now occupy major roles – a process that would have taken me forever to re-write if I had not first put the new thread into the sysnopsis.
      But the best advice I can offer you is that if you want to write a book, then you will.

      Warmest regards.

      PJE

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