Where are my characters going?

When we talk about a character’s “journey” we are usually talking about his (or her) emotional or spiritual journey, But what about the physical, boots on the ground, journey? There are the obstacles, the bumps in the road. There is the weather and where to seek shelter. Why is the journey necessary? But also, there is the decision on which way to go, especially with historical fiction.

Recently, by compete coincidence, I was following the same route that my protagonist was taking, in book two. Of course I was in a comfortable car and he was walking, but we were both following the same road to the north. I started a bit further south, but the section I am thinking of is from York northwards, nowadays the A68, in his day perhaps Dere Street. One of the great Roman roads that continued to be the main travel routes in Anglo-Saxon times and still serve today.

I have been thinking a lot about why roads are where they are. Rivers came first and it is difficult to move a river, so roads had to go where rivers permitted. Most rivers, close to the sea, are difficult to cross. The road must cross where the river was narrow enough to ford, or someone has built a bridge. Ships can sail up rivers – usually to roughly the same point as the road crosses. That is where a town is built. Nowadays roads can go anywhere, across rivers, under hills, even under the sea, but look at a map and you can see the same arrangement of roads laid down by the Romans, often following more ancient prehistoric track ways.

The Portgate on Hadrian’s Wall. What would it have looked like when Byrhtnoth passed this way?

I can look out of the car window and see the same hills and rivers, my character saw, over a thousand years ago. Although the architecture and vegetation may have changed, the bones of the country are the same. Stand on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and you can see Bamburgh Castle (or you can if it’s not raining, as when I was there recently!)

Have you ever looked at a map and noticed a cluster of those little crossed sword symbols that mark a battle site? Close to York we passed Fulford and Stamford Bridge (1066) and Towton (1461). I’m not sure about Towton, but the other two demonstrate the ford/bridge connection. Battle sites are usually close to one of those road/river pinch points.

Heading North – was that the right junction?

I hope you don’t think that these thoughts were distracting me from driving. I was the passenger, or perhaps I should say, performing the more important job of navigator. I find these long journeys are good for thinking, and thinking nowadays means thinking about my writing. When you are on a motorway and the next instruction is 20+ junctions away, you have nothing to do. Normally, when I have the unusual experience of “nothing to do”, I read – difficult in a car – although there are times when I have been desperate enough! We could listen to the radio, but that is difficult with the noise of a motorway. So I sit, looking out the window. Sometimes there are things to look at. Everything passes quickly but sometimes, something will catch your eye; a certain arrangement of clouds, a house in an unusual place, a group of people or just one person. You have no time to study it but you continue thinking about it, you weave a story around it, it might be the start of a new book, or just a brief scene in what you are writing now.

If the journey is boring, as motorways often are, I drift off into my book, enjoyable scenes or something that is causing problems. On our recent trip I started thinking about book three. With book one with the publisher and book two in the midst of editing, I allowed myself to catch the individual strands that had started to float around my brain; in which order should they be placed? How do I connect them together? The main characters are easy – I have a rough idea about their future, although that may change (I have already killed someone off and resurrected them!) It is the minor characters, the ones that pop in and out, how can I re-use them – recycle rather than invent new ones?

I started getting confused, it was difficult remembering what happened in which book. I was horrified to find myself thinking: I really could do with a notebook, to write things down.  Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am not a planner. Am I changing? I can’t imagine doing anything as drastic as actually dividing the book into chapters – before I’d written a word!

Perhaps a timeline, or a few brief biographies, even a family tree. And of course I’ll need a map, to track where people are and how long they take to get there.

But definitely not post-it notes!

Finally, with all this travelling about, I have lost track of where I had got to with recording my editing progress. So I will give a general overview. I have divided book two into four sections, well three sections and a bit on the end. With this edit I have got through the first two (roughly half way). 47,448 words have been reduced to 44,460, a loss of around three thousand words. There is a scene that I have decided to cut, perhaps another. I have hopes I will get under 100,00, perhaps closer to the planned 90k.

So – I’d better get back to it. I have been told I will be getting the book one proofs “sometime”.

The First Step – or is it the Second?

After a break of a couple of weeks – holidays, sickness, I was back at the writing class. Only three more weeks and then we finish until September. How will I manage?

This weeks lesson was based on the book “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder, one of those famous books that nobody reads. If you haven’t, it is about a group of five people who die when an Inca rope bridge collapses.

This was the start of our exercise. We talked about different catastrophes and then wrote a description of one of our own. We had to make a list of at least five characters and describe them. I hate this process – staring at a blank piece of paper with an equally blank mind. Usually something comes and sometimes it leads to wonderful things. Some amazing scenarios certainly emerged during yesterday’s class. I must make a confession – I cheated!

Since I finished my WIP first draft and edit, I have allowed myself to dream. What happens next? After all it is planned as a trilogy. A few ideas have been fermenting in my brain: places, people, events, a battle – of course, deaths – inevitable after a battle, who will die? One thing I did know is how it starts – with a catastrophe! I hadn’t gone any further. When do I start? Do I wait until I have done more editing? Should I catch up with my life for a bit?

Was I a little bit scared?

Faced with the dreaded blank page, I jumped.

I didn’t need to describe my catastrophe, I had already gone through it, many times, in my head

I didn’t need to describe my characters, I already know them. I have even interviewed some of them – see some of the posts I wrote in the April Archives on the right.

Finally, towards the end of the class, I was allowed to start writing. Here is the very first page:

start of the book

At the top you can see my five characters. I have cut out my brief notes about the catastrophe – you didn’t think I was going to give anything away, did you? You can also see why I do most of my writing on the computer. I have written beautiful exercises and then been unable to read them out in class because I can’t read my own writing! There are a few more lines and that is it, so far.

My second WIP AKA (for the moment) Byrhtnoth2 has officially started. There is a (very) long way to go but, as someone once said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

I feel like God saying “Let there be light” (Pretentious, Moi?).

I am every writer who has ever looked at a rock/parchment/piece of paper/computer screen and thought “I’ve got a story to tell, I think I’ll write it down.”

I haven’t experienced this before. My first book just evolved. This time I know what I am doing – in the sense that I know I am writing a book, not that I think I know how to do it.

Coming back to earth, I have homework to do, permission to carry on. Where will it take me? Can I actually do it?

Hopefully some of these questions will be answered in future posts.


Where do writers get their inspiration? The initial idea can come from anywhere. Something said. Something seen. A book you read and think “I could do that better.” Once you start, details creep in from everywhere – sometimes it’s not until later that you realise where they came from. At other times you know exactly.

Autumn means that the Writing Fiction class is back. This year there were a few new students, but most of us have been there longer. For the benefit of the newbies, we started with a few basic exercises.

Out came the box of postcards – pictures of people and places, paintings and photographs. Chose one of a person and one of a place.Write about that person in that place. Perhaps one picture will spark an idea. I grumbled a bit – I don’t want an idea, I just want to carry on with my book. But a painting of a medieval lady on a horse chasing wild animals reminded me of a hunting scene I had been thinking about. Result – another scene written.

The next week we were asked to bring in three objects that meant something to us. We talked about them. We wrote about one of them. We talked about the emotions they produced and we tried to turn the memory into fiction. Some amazing stories emerged.

Greyhound statue on the mantalpiece

Greyhound statue on the mantelpiece.

One of my objects was a small bronze statue of a greyhound. It was a memorial of a dog we used to own. She was not a greyhound but of mixed parentage, from a rescue home. Her shape was lean and she loved to run. Her name was Poppy. She died many years ago, a few months after my father, so the emotions were of love, protection and loss.

For the hunting scene I had written I had looked up (good old Wikipedia!) information about Anglo-Saxon hunting dogs. It appears they were similar to greyhounds. Everything came together. My main character had acquired a dog!

For anyone who has been to The Hurst, which I mentioned in my previous post, you may have noticed two similar stone statues of dogs guarding the front door – no wonder I felt so at home there.

Inspiration is attacking from all directions and my book has reached 63,000 words. As I write, new scenes appear. I am racing ahead. Like a greyhound?




Last week’s class was held on National Poetry Day. We don’t do poetry, that’s a different class, but one of the group wrote a poem about us.

You can read it on our writers website Telling Tales on Thursday, together with other pieces of our writing.