Circus (5)

Last weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was six years old. I went to the circus. And it was fabulous.

Circuses seem to pop up in our area relatively frequently (once or twice a year) and each time I see the spires of a brightly coloured tent I think about going, but don’t usually get round to it. There’s also an idea that the circus is just for kids, which is probably why, until last week, I hadn’t been to one since I was a kid myself. But when the Great Moscow Circus came to town and a friend recommended it, I bit the bullet and bought tickets.

Circus (3)

I go to a lot of theatre, both amateur and professional, so I assumed the circus would be similar, just inside a giant inflatable tent. And it was, yet it was so much more visceral as well. There’s something undeniably thrilling about seeing people doing quite risky things – like trapeze flying or tightrope walking – right in front of you. It felt much more real and immediate than the productions I’m used to seeing.

Circus (2)

I’ve been fascinated by circuses for a long time, especially the old-time travelling shows and carnivals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think it’s because they occupy a kind of liminal space – in the heyday of circuses and travelling shows, they were important to the community (in fact the circus couldn’t exist without them) but at the same time they traditionally provided a haven for people who were otherwise socially excluded due to disability and difference (although the darker side of this was just another kind of exploitation). Probably for this reason, in popular culture the old-time carnival combines a fascinating mix of joy and menace, which has been deftly illustrated by authors such as Ray Bradbury (in Something Wicked This Way Comes).

There’s also a certain element of romance about the circus life – the freedom of the nomadic existence can seem, to those of us stuck in the workaday grind, like the answer to all our problems, although no doubt the reality is rather less glamorous. But who hasn’t at some point dreamed of running off to join the circus?

Strangely enough, as I was sitting there ringside thinking about circuses, it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I like being a writer. I’ll never run off and join the circus in reality – not least because I have no talent for it – but in my books anything is possible. My forthcoming novel, Dragonscale, has a troupe of circus folk in it, and I’ve long been toying with the idea of a book set in an American travelling carnival at the start of the twentieth century, when barnstorming was all the rage. One of the great perks of being a writer is you can be anything you want to be, so once I’ve finished being a nineteenth-century level-crossing operator in my current novel, The Iron Line, I may just become a circus acrobat for a while.

Photo: AL (Flickr,
Photo: AL (Flickr,

In much the same way that people start asking you when you’re having kids about six months after you get married, now that Greythorne is out I’m starting to get questions about the next book.  Unlike the kid question, however, the timing is kind of perfect, because I’ve been turning over ideas for my next novel for a while now.

I’ve written before about NaNoWriMo and how taking part gave me the impetus to start (and finish) Greythorne. As luck would have it, NaNoWriMo 2015 is right around the corner – in fact, it starts next week, on 1 November – so I’ve decided to do it again and hope it works as well for the next book as it did for the last.

Truth be told, I’m a bit nervous. I’ve got a very rough idea of the story – it’s going to be another Gothic horror, but this time set in Australia and I’m very excited about the spooky possibilities of the Australian bush as a setting. And I’ve got three main characters, about whom at this stage I don’t know all that much, except that their names are Elizabeth King (the narrator, a squatter’s daughter who isn’t all she appears to be), Frederick Black (leader of a gang of bushrangers) and his sister Sarah. I have a vague beginning and a vague ending, and then a whole lot of blank space in between, which is both exciting and terrifying.

I kept a diary last time I did NaNoWriMo, and looking back at it I realise that I actually felt like this about Greythorne when I started – it’s just I’ve got so used to seeing the final polished version that I’ve forgotten what the bare bones of a book looks like. At least I have a better idea this time around what to expect of the actual process: the first week will be exciting and enjoyable as the story starts to take shape; the second week will be hellish as the novelty wears off and I get sick of having to get up early to write before work (and probably quite demoralising as I fall behind on my writing target); in the third week I’ll start to hit my stride, especially once I crack the all-important 25,000 words – the point at which the number of words left is less than the number you’ve already written; and by the fourth week I’ll hopefully be so engaged in the story that I’ll just want to keep up the routine.

I’m going to blog weekly about the process and how it’s going – partly because I want to share it with you (although books, like laws and sausages, may be something that it’s best not to see getting made) and partly to keep myself honest. I’m aiming for 35,000 words in November rather than the full 50,000 just because I have to squeeze my writing around work and other things, so I’ve decided to take the pressure off and be a bit kinder to myself this time around. Last time I did NaNoWriMo I finished with 32,000, so I think 35,000 is realistic.

As the story develops I also hope to be able to share some of the details with you (as I discover them), so if you’d like to be the first to get access to these exclusive excerpts please subscribe to my newsletter.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea) and Part 2 (Plot and Structure).

Like most Gothic novels, setting is crucial to Greythorne. Whether it’s an isolated, spooky old house (in traditional Gothic) or the threatening emptiness of the landscape (in Australian Gothic, which I’m planning to explore in my next novel), the place is as much a character as the people are.

I made a deliberate choice to keep the setting of Greythorne extremely tight – almost claustrophobic. All the action, apart from Nell’s initial journey and the epilogue, takes place in either Greythorne Manor or the nearby village of Grimly. I was inspired in part by memories of a long-ago trip to the north of England, but more by my reading of nineteenth-century novels (either those written at the time or published later and set there). I have a long-held fascination with the late nineteenth century – the Victorian/Edwardian eras – which was a time of great technological and social change, and I’m particularly interested in the stories of women, who tend to be written out of a lot of the history and fiction of the time. When I first conceived of Greythorne, I thought of it as a horror story, but it really isn’t – it’s a Gothic suspense in the tradition of Victorian popular fiction, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and Dracula, and it actually takes much of its inspiration from adventure writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne.

The village of Grimly was inspired by J. Meade Falkner’s 1898 tale of smugglers, Moonfleet, and my character Arthur Greenslade’s observation that “This here were once a favored spot for smugglers dodging the Revenue men,” is my little tribute to that book.

I have a very clear picture in my head of what Grimly looks like, and I can only hope that’s translated onto the page. When I was writing the first draft, I scribbled a rough map to help me visualise the area and where the major locations were.

My rough map of the Grimly area, with the station, railway line, village, bay and Greythorne Manor (island).
My rough map of the Grimly area, with the station, railway line, village, bay and Greythorne Manor (island).

Likewise, I did a (very) rough sketch of what I thought Greythorne Manor would look like – by which you can tell I’m definitely not a visual artist.

A very rough exterior sketch of Greythorne Manor.
A very rough exterior sketch of Greythorne Manor.

I also sketched out the interior to try to orient myself a bit better, but even so,  the copy-editor pointed out that a rectangular house doesn’t have wings – which required a bit of revision (see my post on the usefulness of copy-editors here). I spent a lot of time looking at the floor plans of old manor houses (how did people do research before the internet?) and reading about the structure and function of Victorian households.

A rough floor plan of Greythorne Manor.
A rough floor plan of Greythorne Manor.

Greythorne‘s setting also gave me the chance to try out some really sensory writing – it’s a place so rich in smells and sounds and even the tangy taste of the salt air that I had a wonderful time describing it. No doubt your visualisation of it will be very different to mine, but I hope it stirs your blood the way it does Nell’s.