Ideas in the Mist by John Ravenscroft – Fiction Columnist

Last month I said I had a few hazy ideas as to the kind of novel I want to write, and a few even hazier ones regarding characters and situations. Vague feelings, potential pressures, a pinch of maybe and a dash of perhaps. Ideas in the Mist.

Since then I’ve been doing some serious thinking – so serious it appears even God was impressed. Three weeks ago I was out walking Ellie the dog when He extended a helping hand (his right one, I expect) and arranged for me to break my ankle. Agony, of course, but enormously useful. When you’re stuck in a chair with your leg in plaster, there isn’t much else for you to do but sit and think.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Sitting. Thinking. Exploring the unfamiliar territory of my yet-to-be novel, and frantically mapping the places I get to see whenever the mist lifts. They’re too few, too far between, and there’s a lot of acreage still shrouded, but I’ve definitely made some cartographical progress. So thanks a lot, God. Your ways may indeed be mysterious, but sometimes they work.

I began my explorations by asking some fundamental questions. Questions I think all first-time novelists would be wise to address before they commit too many words to paper:

  • What type of novel do I want to write?
  • What are my personal obsessions?
  • Who are my characters, and why have we chosen each other?

There are other questions I need answers to – hundreds of them – but the above are perhaps the most basic. I’ll deal with them in order.

1. What kind of novel?

I’ll come straight out with it and say that I’m aiming for Literary Fiction. When I was younger I had a passion for Sci-Fi and used to devour those old yellow hardbacks published by Victor Gollancz; later I developed a taste for spy novels (especially those by John le Carre); in my Horror Period I bought just about everything Stephen King produced. But when I read these days I tend to go for Lit Fic. The kind of shorts published by Granta. Novels by authors like Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Roddy Doyle – all very different stylists, of course, but with at least one thing in common: they produce books that are more than simple entertainments. Books that try to say something worth saying, something true about life. That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what I want to write.

2. Ravenscroft’s Obsessions.

According to Anne (Interview with a Vampire) Rice: ‘Writers write about what obsesses them.’ That sounds pretty much on the money to me – so I spent some time during the past month sifting through my collection of obsessions. It took a while – I seem to have more than my fair share – but from a longish list I extracted the following:

1. The difficulties of self-definition, given our powerful need to belong/conform.

2. Problems caused by Head v Heart.

3. Science and Religion. Can we have both?

4. Infidelity and its consequences.

5. The Joys (ahem) of Teaching.

With those obsessions in mind, I thought about possible story events. I also thought about possible times/locations – I was in Cornwall for the 1999 solar eclipse and I want to use that experience. And, of course, I thought about potential characters. Which brings me to:

3. Who are my characters and why have we chosen each other?

In my head, I’ve spent the past month running auditions. Different characters have been stepping out of the novel-mist, jumping up and down, squatting on my computer keyboard, kicking papers off my desk. Some have been shy, some brash, some downright disgusting. There are one or two particularly stroppy individuals you wouldn’t want to bump into in a dark alley – but over a few cans of Guinness my potential characters and I have had some preliminary getting-to-know-you conversations. In the process I’ve discovered things about them – and also things about myself. It’s an interesting business, this story-growing. Psychologically, I mean. When you go stomping about inside your own subconscious, you find yourself turning over all kinds of internal stones.

Anyway, the end results of all this sitting and thinking are:

I now have a working title for my novel – Stargazers.

I also have a pretty good idea of who the main characters are going to be.

My protagonist (and, I think, the main viewpoint character) is Peter, an unhappy and frustrated teacher of physics in a difficult comprehensive school. Whenever he gets the chance, he’s away out of the classroom with his telescope over his shoulder. A keen amateur astronomer, is Peter. A man in search of stars.

Fae (at least I think her name’s going to be Fae) is also interested in stars – but from a New Age, incense-burning, horoscope and astrology point of view rather than a scientific one.

These two are going to meet in Cornwall during the 1999 eclipse, and Peter’s going to find Fae utterly fascinating. She’s attractive, relaxed, funny, sexy as hell – everything he isn’t. But there’s also something dark about her – oh yes there is – and doesn’t this astrological group she’s involved with smell a little like, well… a little like a cult?

It certainly does to Peter.

And then there’s Peter’s mother. The less said about her the better. At least for the time being.

And I mustn’t forget Zac, Fae’s father-figure, and the leader of her cult (if, indeed, it is a cult). I’m grooming old Zac for the role of antagonist, and I’m glad to say Peter’s not keen on him. Not keen at all. And I have a feeling we’re going to discover there are plenty of reasons for him to feel that way…

(Next month - The Charged Image – and maybe an extract!)

Copyright John Ravenscroft – 2002

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