Something Hidden by Nick Blackstock

nick My last blog, but that sounds a little final so I’d better add ‘in this series’. If I measure output against time spent then, to my surprise, I’ve found writing a blog to be quite hard work. If worked over too much, then it can come over as studied and artificial: if ‘you go where the muse takes you’, then we’re back to the ‘self indulgent ramble’ again.  I’ve probably been guilty of both.


Even if I can’t hope to emulate them, I’m always interested in ‘how’ other writers set about writing.  The office situated well away from your home has its attractions. Of course, theoretically, you are liberated from domestic distractions and so can focus your mind totally on the work in hand.  In my case I rather suspect the ‘focus’ would shift fairly naturally to ‘I really must oil those door hinges’ or, ‘isn’t it time for a cuppa?’


Certainly I do my ‘best’ thinking whilst out walking.  The problem is you do keep meeting other walkers and they will persist in chatting.  What do you do? Carry a sandwich board saying ‘author at work – do not disturb!’ Cultivate a permanent, menacing grimace and hope people will be put off?  You may write a best seller, whilst at the same time, collecting your local ‘curmudgeon of the year’ award.


Another option – regrettably not open to all – is to get right away from it all.  The other day my paper carried an extract from Arnold Bennet’s diaries who, while staying on the Riviera and admiring the view, congratulated himself on completing two thousand words before lunch.  Ah, chance would be such a fine thing!


Of course, working abroad carries with it, its own problems.  Laurie Lee lost the whole of the initial m/s for ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’, while travelling in Spain.  Obviously he managed to reconstruct it, but it must have been a hammer blow.  Could I reconstruct if such an accident happened?  Probably . . . but it would be a different book . . . maybe an even be better one.  Somehow, I don’t think I’ll travel any further down that particular road.


Then there are those insomniacs who claim to rise at 4 a.m. and complete God knows how many thousand words before breakfast.  Well good for them I say.  Personally I would find that worrying about door hinges can be done just as easily in bed as out of it. 


Interesting as all these approaches are, there is nothing I can ‘poach’ to help my own writing process.  I suppose superglue on the seat of the computer chair might help to concentrate the mind on the task in hand, but that carries with it its own problems – generally involving the local fire brigade.  No, I’ll just have to carry on as always with long periods grinding out pitiful dribs and drabs interspaced with frenetic but all too infrequent bursts of creativity.  It’s not particularly romantic, but I think it’s probably how most of us work.


Next week it’s the turn of Dr Kim Fleet.  She will be blogging about her thriller ‘Sacred Site’ which will shortly be appearing on the website as a 2009 title.


For those of you still following the blog, thanks for sticking with me – I just hope it hasn’t been too painful.  I have replied to Caroline and Ben, and thank Andrew and Rick for their comments too. The way we are all supporting each other is wonderful.










Something Hidden by Nick Blackstock

nick What motivates authors? Well in my case various historical episodes caught my imagination, fixed themselves there and then refused point blank to leave. Although I had written non-fiction, the thought was ever there that, using these events as a basis, I could write a novel or novels.   Equally, I also knew that it would have to wait until I had more time.  So the first thing I want to say is that I have unqualified admiration for those younger authors who, when faced with this dilemma, have decided not to wait – despite the frenetic juggling of personal, professional and family life it must have entailed.


The truism has it that you ‘write about what you know’.  In most cases yes, but . . .  some successful books have been written using places, scenarios and situations totally foreign to the writer.  When that transpires, I can only applaud the author’s confidence.  I find I need to have some personal knowledge, however limited that might be.  In most cases it doesn’t markedly reduce the research load, but it does inject that extra scintilla of confidence into your writing.  Or, at least, I hope it does.


One thing that writing has also brought home to me is increasing admiration for writers in the pre-computer age.  Nowadays we edit as we go along, changing punctuation here, excising there, moving text at will. Consider the output of literary giants such as say, Dickens, producing what would now be termed ‘blockbuster’ after ‘blockbuster’. It was all done in longhand and consistently under the pressure of publishers’ deadlines. Also, since some of his work appeared in magazines, deadlines could often be monthly or less. As a word, ‘admiration’ begins to feel a little inadequate.


Of course there is a plus side to this, in that modern technology has opened up the practicality, not to say the possibility, of writing to many more would-be authors..   Theoretically, this should enhance the literary gene pool by granting access to publication to a much wider range of individual ‘life experiences’.  Unhappily, as we all know, this coincides with a downturn in the economics of publishing.  It’s a case of Sod’s Law raising its head again.


As far as the difficulties of getting published is concerned, we’ve all been there, done that . . . but unfortunately didn’t get the ‘T’ shirt at the end of it.  Ben talked in his blog about the almost impossible task facing first time fiction authors wishing to be seriously considered by agents/publishing houses.  I’m perfectly happy to outline my experience which I’m sure is typical. I must have approached between fifty or sixty houses before my first novel was published.  In the main, the experience was soul destroying, but there were occasional chinks of light. Standing out from the ninety plus percent outright rejections or ‘no replies’, were three editors who took the time and trouble to contact me.   They said what they liked about the book and why, for a variety of reasons, they couldn’t take it on. It was these positive responses which kept me going.


Then, after this first novel, I ran into an absolute blank wall.  In fact I put my second novel to one side for a while and concentrated on other projects.  So I would like to echo Ben’s comments about Picnic and its willingness to take on non-established authors. It deserves to succeed. As to other publishing houses – let’s hope he is right about the faint glimmerings of a change in attitudes.  This is particularly important in respect of first time authors.  They are, after all, the seed corn of future fiction writing.


When I started this blog, my feelings about blogging in general were that it could all too easily degenerate into a self indulgent ramble.  I know that, from time to time, I have come dangerously close to this.  So tomorrow I intend to switch to the much more interesting subject of the techniques other writers use to get through the writing process.





Something Hidden by Nick Blackstock

nick In a mystery novel it is taken for granted that the plot is supreme and, whatever else happens, the author must never lose control.  The plot in this novel is, as they say, ‘multi-layered’. From time to time certain aspects will be touched upon but, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do it justice in the form of a blog.


As to the characters who appear, the principals are the engine driver involved in the fatal crash and a junior reporter on a Bristol newspaper, together with his girl friend, later his wife. Other, mainly fictitious, characters do make an appearance, but there are also some real people of that period including one very prominent person. (Note to publishers.  I’m assuming there is no statute of limitations as far as libel is concerned, so I’ve been very careful as to how these people are portrayed.)


Having got the main dramatis personae out of the way, let me say something about times and places.  The novel is set mainly in London and, to a lesser extent, the West Country.  The period covered dates from the late nineteen-twenties, through the thirties and includes the early years of the war and the blitz.   


Now the well worn aphorism has it that, ‘if you remembered the sixties you weren’t there’. Paradoxically, most readers were not around in the thirties either, yet from reading and TV documentaries, most people feel they ‘remember’ the decade.  The images come all too readily to mind: dreadful unemployment, hunger marches, fascist and anti-fascist riots. Since, at the time, London tended to be the focus of most of these movements, there is a tendency to conflate the capital with the economic depression of the time and its consequences. In general this was not so. Unfair as it might have seemed to people in the provinces, relatively speaking London was doing very nicely.  Tube lines were being extended, suburbs were expanding, car ownership was growing and business, once the crash of twenty nine was out of the way, was flourishing.  If you were in work (and most people were) it was an exciting place to be, offering the opportunity to move onwards and upwards. Economics apart, the literary world also helped to confer something of a rosy halo on life in pre-war London and the South East, as poets such as Betjeman and novelists like Delderfield (‘Dreaming Suburbs’) used this ‘feel good’ factor to paint a picture of the period.


As the thirties went on and particularly as war approached, the mood changed.  Baldwin’s much quoted remark that ‘the bombers will always get through’ merely reflected the growing realisation of the vulnerability of big cities and their inhabitants. At the same time, there was a desperate hope that the ‘Great Powers’ would not, could not, let war happen again.


Eventually, of course, war did come. It came first as a ‘phoney war’, then as a full scale blitz on big cities.  Of course bombing was not confined to the capital, but because of its size, transport infrastructure (deep tubes) and numbers of casualties, London tends to be synonymous with the blitz. I have studied the period, but of course I was not there. Relatives, however, have passed on stories and these tend to centre around fear, lack of sleep, homes destroyed and damaged, together with casualties.  An uncle of mine disappeared during that time.  He left his brother’s house with the intention of seeing him the following week, but never came back.  His brother kept up the search until long after the war only to conclude reluctantly that he must have been in one of the tube stations that had been hit.  No doubt there are all too many sad stories like that.


The thirties started with the aftermath of a great economic crash, moved on to more hopeful times, began to turn darker with the approach of war and finally ended with the trauma of war itself.  I know I’ve said quite a bit about these times, but it provides the essential backdrop against which those involved play out their lives and hopes.  So what I have tried to do is to recreate the sense, feel and, above all, ‘taste’ of a society during a life changing period.


Well I think I’ve gone on quite enough about the novel, so for the remaining two days I’ll take a break and say something (don’t worry – not much) about myself and my approach to the writing process.  Last week, Ben made some very interesting points about new (or nearly new) authors and the publishing process.  So I hope to add my two pennyworth to that debate also.





Something Hidden by Nick Blackstock

nick As I wrote yesterday, the theories which floated round the identities of the dead children were legion.  There had been an inferno after the crash (the train lighting was still powered by gas), so some remains were difficult to identify.  In fact a coroner’s inquest pronounced a verdict of accidental death on one man based purely on circumstantial and witness evidence.  Therefore the first question asked was, had these children really been on the train? Once again witness statements and clothing (including remnants of school uniform) seemed to confirm this.  A school motto ‘Luce Magistra’ was found on the remnants of one garment.  This was (and is) the motto of a girls’ school near York and, since the train started from Leeds, it was a first line of enquiry.  The school very firmly denied all knowledge.  Over the years, droves of amateur sleuths must have passed this way and I know from experience that eighty years on, the school is still sensitive about the unfortunate conjunction of events.


Of course all this happened in an era of empire, when many parents lived and worked abroad while their offspring were educated here.  A great many theories sprang up around this particular fact: kids packed off to friends/relatives; breakdown in communications, family disputes etc, etc.  The fact remains that, in subsequent years, no distraught parents returned from abroad, demanding to know where their children were.  It was never tenable as a theory.  Some families have always been poor at communicating, but with not so much as a Christmas or birthday card over the years, alarm bells must have started ringing somewhere.


The mystery also generated an avalanche of letters to newspapers. It was from amongst these that the truly ‘off the wall’ suggestions emerged.  One was that a ventriloquist had been a passenger with his dummy sitting beside him (thus being mistaken for a child).  The suggestion was that the unfortunate ventriloquist had perished and his wooden dummy was totally destroyed.  No explanation was ever proffered as to how the dummy managed to present his ticket and pass muster with the inspector.  But if true, it must have been a class act. Yet another ‘explanation’ was that a jockey was on the train (still, apparently, dressed in his racing silks, which in turn were mistaken for a school uniform}.  I could go on, but I won’t! 


To this day no solution to this mystery has been found.  Almost ten years after the event, a woman came forward claiming that the children were her two brothers.  Since it was accepted that the children were a boy and a girl, her claim was dismissed and her story not followed up.


Of course, as in all good mysteries, myths started to take shape.  A local solicitor was supposed to have crucial information which he died without divulging.  Two years after the accident, a chief Constable of Bristol disappeared.  He was found dead in a London hotel with his throat cut, allegedly after speaking to the same solicitor. Perhaps the most persistent story was that, several times a year, a woman dressed in black arrived in a limousine.  Apparently she laid flowers at the memorial in the local churchyard and these visits lasted until the late forties. Also, as in all good mysteries, no one attempted to speak to her.


So there we have it.  A fascinating real life mystery, never solved and by now probably unsolvable.  Which is all very well but, based on these bare initial facts, I had a novel to write.  The thirties were a fascinating decade so, without revealing the plot, tomorrow I plan to say more about where and when most of the action takes place.  Of course,  I’ll be happy to take questions, but on the question of Charfield, it’s no good asking me who these children were.  I just haven’t a clue.










Something Hidden by Nick Blackstock

nickMy first blog (yes, a real blog virgin ) and, reading the contributions of Caroline, Andrew and Ben, I’m very much reminded of that fact. In the meantime, sitting in front of an obstinately blank computer screen, my first problem is that I’ve absolutely no idea who I am writing for. Are there untold numbers of historical mystery buffs out there, hanging on my every word (improbable)?  On the other hand, is it someone who has stumbled on this site by accident and doesn’t want to take the dog for a walk because it’s raining (all too likely)?  So for the moment I’ll play safe and aim at the would-be dog walker.


Of course if you write historical fiction then you must be prepared for setbacks if real time events impact on your book. A point that Caroline makes early on in her blog is that, given the publication date of her own novel, recent comments in the House of Lords about nurses have come out just a little too early. Serendipity will sometimes do an author an apparent favour by bringing into public arena facts/news that help to publicise the book. On the other hand, ‘sod’s law’ will almost certainly dictate that the timing is totally out of ‘sync’   Then there are other problems. If the core of your book also deals with a longstanding historical mystery (in my case the bodies of unidentified children found in the wreckage of a Gloucestershire rail crash in the late twenties), then a further nightmare must be that someone comes along and actually solves it. So here and now let me make a heartfelt plea. If somewhere in the West Country is a nonagenarian who, all these years, has been keeping quiet about the identity of these kids, then I have a message for him/her.  ‘Why rock the boat now? ‘


Another factor in using a real historical mystery as a starting point, is that vast forests will already have been sacrificed to non-fiction accounts of what really happened – or what might have happened.  As a consequence the research base can sometimes be overwhelming. Nor is this restricted to recent history.  Whilst researching a previous novel concerning a man-eating wolf in eighteenth century France, I had to plough through innumerable accounts by armies of nineteenth century French clerics determined to mine the last vestiges of folk memory.  Judging by the amount of time they spent on the subject, it may help to explain why France is now the most secular nation in Europe.


Given all this, I suppose it is lucky that my present novel, ‘Something Hidden’, deals with a little known mystery.  I was about to say an ‘unknown mystery’, but that carries echoes of ‘Monty python’.  What I mean is that although many people – especially those in the area where it happened – will know of it, it still does not have any national resonance.  Also it occurred eighty years ago – just far enough away in terms of time { I hope} to give the author more of a free hand to ‘invent’ both circumstances and characters.   


My starting point involved researching the background to the original railway accident on which the novel is based ( Charfield, Gloucestershire 1928).  Obviously the circumstances in which the bodies of two apparently well dressed and well cared for children could be killed without being missed, struck a national chord.  There was massive publicity and everyone, it appeared, had a theory.  These ranged from the relatively sane to the totally mind boggling.  Happily, because this was 1928, an ‘alien abduction gone wrong’ did not figure among them – but almost everything else did.  Tomorrow I will go through some of these ‘theories’, but potential readers can rest assured: absolutely none of these have been incorporated into the novel.