I was lucky enough to go to the launch of Liz de Jager's fantastic new book Banished last week. The dedication to her husband Mark says "thank you for asking what if". I've never been much of a "what if-er", so this got me thinking. How do my stories start?
My current story, a Victorian middle grade thriller set in London's docklands, started with a visit to an old mortuary. Sadly – or perhaps thankfully – it's no longer a mortuary, but a very knowledgeable guide took us round, gleefully telling us where the bodies were hung so as to drip dry, and other such didn't-really-want-to-know details that brought the old place to life. I could really picture the bodies all lined up ready for collection, the viewing hatch where grieving relatives stood to identify their dearly departed, and I saw the still-there beam where the body hooks went. Incidentally, the floor is sloping in that room, for obvious, if grim, reasons. So I had the setting, but what sparked the story? A throw away comment from the guide who told us that people were given a crown on the south side of the river if they brought river bodies into the mortuary, but half a crown on the north. I wondered what sort of person would do this? And what about those people who found bodies on the north bank of the Thames? Yes, they did bring them over to the south, apparently.
The last novel I wrote – The Apothecary's Apprentice – started with Whitehall Palace and Charles II. I love Restoration London. What must it have been like to go from distant Charles I, to Puritan Oliver Cromwell, and then to the flamboyant Charles II? And how could the most terrible slums be just a thirty minute walk from the Palace itself; a fifteen minute walk from the posh Strand houses? So, again, I had the setting. The characters? I started with Apothecarys' Hall, which, like the mortuary, I visited during London Open House weekend. And there I found them. The young, newly qualified apothecary and Lizzie – the only female apothecary's apprentice in London. I loved this story. It got me an honorary mention in Undiscovered Voices. But it wasn't to be. Good setting though.
No what ifs yet.
The novel before that? A fantasy that I long to go back to. It's still there, all lovely and pretty, but it was never right. And how did I get the idea? Walking through the woods at Holkham in Norfolk. Setting again. I imagined my character, Faith, walking out of the woods, almost feral, almost fae, into a normal village. I set the story in 1605, and there were plots (involving gunpowder of course), there were faeries (big Pagan ones), and there were a lot of words that didn't quite fit. But no what ifs.
I often wonder whether I should try a what if or two. But would it work? Is it me? Can I even think of any? Maybe, for me, the what ifs come later. After the first draft. Maybe I can use them to refine and define my story; to create the pitch, find the heart.
How many other writers out there are what if-ers and how many, like me, start with the sense of place?