In keeping with the product–process nature of this website, I thought I’d share another project update on some of the things on my mind with regards to the next few months’ chapters, including the novel’s structure, my next writing challenge with narration and some of the wonderful, serendipitous moments that happen in the creative process. Having just sent 160 pages, my largest section yet, for a legal read-over, I’m in project-reflection mode before diving into the next story-writing phase. So, this is what’s on my mind.
When it comes to structure, originally I’d planned to flip-flop consistently between the modern-day Phil chapters and the Victorian ones so you’d always have both in mind. However, now, I’m changing my mind on that. For instance, if I’ve gone to all the trouble of putting you in 1849, looking at the story through Justine’s eyes, I want you to stay with her for a while so you can develop a reader/character relationship with her without being catapulted back to the police station. While Justine’s chapters have humour in them, they are serious in nature and if I intersperse them with the lighthearted, cavalier Phil chapters, they’ll lose the depth and poignancy I need them to have. So, with this in mind, I’ve decided to run Justine’s story uninterrupted for a while and we’ll just have to assume that Phil is deep into reading and hasn’t taken a break.
Also, having made the decision to keep you in 1849 a little longer, I’ll be including at the bottom of this post a small Phil scene I will likely insert into one of his opening chapters. In this scene, he’s in Rosegate on the dawn of Aubrey’s death and while Detective Redmond remains in the study, Phil wanders over to the other top room which is cluttered with objects from the Wells/Holloway family history. If you take the time to read this scene before you proceed with the 1849 Justine section, perhaps you can keep an eye out for those objects in the actual story. It’ll be like a literary scavenger hunt.
Speaking of Phil, as I mentioned in the previous project update post, I’m still very iffy about his fall from grace at the office with Jeannie Robbins. Often when I’m writing, I know that a certain plot point is non-negotiable (i.e. Sidney being George’s half-brother). Sometimes, I’ll spend a few days working on a scene only to decide it’s not going to work at all in the story at which case it falls by the wayside, perhaps to be ransacked for the odd image, metaphor or simile for another scene. And other times, I’ll write a story thread that “could” work but I’m undecided over whether or not it does. The Phil/Jeannie thread is one of those. So, this is what I’m going to do with those Phil/Jeannie chapters. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post them in consecutive order here on the process section of the site as pending scenes.
Within the up-for-debate Phil/Jeannie story-line, however, there is a non-negotiable plot point. This plot point is so non-negotiable for the plot and for me as the writer that it must stand. That plot point is what Phil has sacrificed for his family — for his parents and for Claire, Nico and James. When I wrote those scenes within the parts pending, I felt Phil so deeply, I knew I couldn’t waver on those scenes. You’ll know them when you come to them. And then, because writing is like a row of dominoes falling down, that new non-negotiable plot point meant that I’d have to go back and have Phil know about his sister Richie from the start. He wouldn’t necessarily have to know that her death was a suicide, but he’d have to know that he had an older sister, especially as she will have been key to the pressure his parents put on him to live their truths, not his own.
Once I’ve taken my “post-160-page hand-in” breather, I’ll be picking up in 1873 with George who, having been stuck on the Green for months with Ada in his arms and Sidney’s body a stone’s throw away, is getting tired of waiting for me. So, while you continue to read about Justine and Gregory (and Phil’s shenanigans at the police station here on the process section), I’ll be trying to develop George’s voice in the first person to get it ready for his shared possession with Justine of Aubrey’s mind.
In terms of illustration, Christine will be turning her mind to doing the portraits of Gregory and a young 1849 version of Justine in her maid’s uniform. I can’t give too much away here, but I’m beginning to have Christine tuck clues to one of the story’s many secrets in the actual illustrations. Because, as Phil thinks at the end of the attic scene I’m including below, evidence often hides in the most unlikely of places and the true story isn’t always front and centre. Christine’s illustrations have a huge significance in the actual story. They are not just accompaniment for my writing.
And finally, I want to talk about the private little celebratory moments that occur when you’re writing in isolation. Coincidence or not, these moments come along every once in a while to let you know that you’re on the right track. I had two of those moments this past week. The first has to do with the name “Sidney”. In this story, Sidney has been Sidney from the start. I chose the name because it was a popular name for boys in the Victorian era and I’d seen the name somewhere in the far reaches of my own family tree. Then, a month ago, I decided that Sidney would be conceived in the heath, or at least that’s where Justine would believe he’d been conceived. I even wrote another scene which dealt with her association of her son with that landscape. Last week, for the first time, I thought I should look up the meaning of the name “Sidney” and, as the universe would have it, the name means “wide meadow”. And what is a heath, but a wide meadow. I was privately overjoyed.
The same thing happened with Bertie’s bergamot oil. I was dotting Foxglove with all of these imaginary props and decided bath oil would add a nice touch. Not wanting to distract myself from the scene, I didn’t take the time to start researching “Victorian bath oils”, nor did I have a clue if Victorians even used them and if they did, what the ingredients would be. And forgive my ignorance, I didn’t even know what “bergamot” was. I’d seen the word somewhere in relation to tea and liked the way the word sounded. So, as lazy as it sounds, I plugged the word in there as a stand-in word, planning to research Victorian bath products at a later date. Finally, the day before yesterday, I turned my attention to that small detail and, what-do-you-know, it turns out that bergamot oil, made from the rind of the citrus fruit bergamot, was one of the main bath oils used in England in the 1840-50 time period. My Victorian ancestors must’ve planted the idea in my head because, when I was setting up Foxglove, the word “bergamot” seemingly popped out of nowhere onto the screen. Once again, I was privately overjoyed at this little discovery.
This week, I’ll be posting the next two chapters in the Justine/Gregory story. In the meantime, here’s that additional scene for the opening Phil chapter I was telling you about. Remember to be on the lookout for some of the scene’s objects in the 1849 Justine/Gregory thread.
At Detective Redmond’s orders, Phil left the study, crossing the hall to the other top room. It was five o’clock in the morning by then and the room was sharpening in focus. Standing in the doorway, watching the constellations of dust glow eerily in the soft grey shafts of light angling through window, Phil thought the room a world unto itself, forever subject to the changing shades of sky and season.
The room was filled with trunks, stacks of documents, piles of books and trinkets heaped in boxes. A full-length mirror, its glassy surface flecked and bruised, sloped against the left-hand wall beside an antique wardrobe. A bureau stood against the opposite wall, showing off an ornate wash basin and water pitcher. Mostly everything was draped in cobwebs. On the windowsill ahead, old jam jars filled with brushes stared out at a stack of folded easels they hadn’t touched in years. Dry residue – blue, gold, crimson, green – remained in shadows on the inside of the glass. And yet, Phil thought, the jars were far more beautiful dirty than they would’ve been if they were clean.
Entering the room, Phil stepped gingerly around the clutter, walking to the wardrobe. Tugging open the door, he saw two dresses, clearly more than a century old. One crimson, the other midnight blue, both were frayed, moth-eaten in places. Reaching out and touching one of the sleeves, he felt a strange jolt, then a warmth throughout his body. The sensation was unsettling, but at the same time, wanted – but like something you hadn’t realised you were lacking until you saw it.
Digging deep into the wardrobe, under the dresses, Phil pulled out a pair of boots. Examining their pointed toes and the thin silk laces criss-crossed through the eyelets in the soft black leather, he thought they would’ve been alluring for their time, but slightly frightening for the present. Returning the boots to their resting place, Phil closed the wardrobe and shifted to the oblong mirror, staring at himself in the discoloured glass. That too was strange because it made him think of centuries hence when his image, modern now, would be outdated. But then again, James and Nico, his twenty-something sons saw him as a dinosaur in the here and now.
He stood before the mirror for a while, breathing deeply, looking at himself.
Then, raising his gaze slightly, he suddenly noticed two objects in the clutter behind him which he hadn’t paid attention to when first surveying the mess.
The first object was a simple wooden chair and on it, was the second object, a box, both illumined in the shaft of light coming through the window.
Turning away from the mirror, Phil made his way to the chair and started to examine the contents in the box. There were a couple of tiny dessert spoons. There were several books, including one called Memories of Holywell: A Collection of Poems by Colin Seabrook. Leafing through the first few pages of the book, Phil saw a handwritten note, reading, ‘Dear Harland – in memory of your mother. – Colin.’ The note, written on an angle, came above the book’s printed dedication: TO MR. WALCOTT, THE MAN WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO PAINT WITH WORDS.
Returning the book to the box, Phil pulled out another book: ‘The Serenade of Venus’, its cover depicting a woman clothed in nothing more than roses and a sweep of dark brown hair. While the painting would’ve been beautiful for the nineteenth century, Phil thought it overly romantic for his taste.
Setting the book down on top of the poetry, Phil lifted a small painting from the rubble.
Now, that he liked.
It showed a young girl of about the age of eight standing at the top of a fire escape in an alleyway. She was smiling and her eyes were filled with the rising sunlight. Looking at the girl, Phil thought she embodied the wonder one should feel in childhood. The painter had captured the joy Phil wished every child could enjoy. It made him think of his own childhood, sitting on the settee with his older sister Richie with her drawing whilst he watched The Wombles on the television. Because, when he really thought about it, those were the moments when he’d been at his happiest; with Richie and her coloured pencils strewn here, there and everywhere, threatening to give him her “rib-tickling-death-punch” if he got his sticky fingers on her works in progress.
Setting the painting aside, Phil turned to the other items: a crystal vial with a stopper, a pillowcase half-filled with goose down, a small antique kitchen knife wrapped in a tea towel, tickets to an orchestra performance featuring a famous cellist in London in 1865 and what looked to be an original ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ poster from World War II with 1939 penned on the back.
And then, amongst all that, there was an unfamiliar apparatus, a belt of sorts, Phil concluded. Made of thin metal, the slender waistband, which parted at one side, was bound with a tiny padlock which was clearly locked and keyless. A cradle of metal with a jagged tear-shaped slit dropped down from the centre before it curved, attaching to the back of the belt.
“Christ.” Phil tossed what was clearly a chastity belt back in the box. “How medieval.”
He had half a mind to ask Detective Redmond if she wanted to give it a go but, not wanting to get sacked for insubordination, he decided against it. Nevertheless, it made him thankful to be living in the 2000’s. Except, reconsidering the contraption, he wouldn’t put it past workmate Vic to put it to some kinky use if he had the chance. It was a good job Vic wasn’t rummaging through the room now; he’d probably take off with the Victorian boots while he was at it.
Just as he was setting the painting of the girl face-up on top of the items in the box, he heard the detective crossing the hall.
“Anything suspicious, Owens?” Redmond asked, standing on the threshold in her protective gear, her gloved hands on her hips.
“I don’t think so, Detective,” Phil replied, cocking his head back toward the box. “That is unless you think these things are of any importance.”
Stepping into the room, the detective peered into the box.
“Looks like a lot of junk to me,” she said decisively. “We’ve already got the necessary items from the scene itself. We can’t empty the whole house, not at this point anyway. Besides, it’s clearly a suicide. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. So, no, let’s leave this rubble be for now.”
“Yes, Detective,” Phil said as the detective turned and returned to the study across the hall. “Just a lot of junk,” he mumbled once she’d gone. “Nothing more than rubble.”
But he wasn’t so sure.
Looking down into the painted eyes of the young girl on the fire escape, Phil thought that evidence often hid in the most unlikely of places. The true story wasn’t always front and centre.