Imag(in)ing the past

The story I’m writing at the moment is set in the past, in a vague and never-specified summer at the end of the 80s: 1988 or 1989. Certain signifiers are there – and necessarily there – which tie it to this particular era. Thatcher is Prime Minister; the 1984-85 miners’ strike is described as having happened “a few years ago”; a group of teenagers listen to the latest music, in this case acid house.

Writing fiction that’s set in the past is challenging, not least because you need a certain amount of things which make plain that it is in the past (assuming its historical nature is important) while running the risk of what I’ve seen called the “bakelite” problem, whereby you over-describe common objects, and in highlighting their period features lose all subtlety.

One of my favourite writers, Clive Barker, is on record (I’ll find the quote sometime) as saying that he deliberately leaves out things like brand names in his fiction. This is in complete contrast to Stephen King, whose amiable voice can’t cram in enough pop-culture references. Who didn’t first hear of any number of American brands via King’s fiction? I know I did. But Barker’s choice leaves more space in the reader’s mind, and doesn’t tie them to certain expectations or imagery. Also, it means the work is less likely to date. Obviously, the advent of mobile phones and the web means any fiction from before about 1997 can feel dated to an extent, but at least you’re not building the obsolescence into the work.

I have an image in my head of (for instance) the High Street of the town in my story, filled with retailers now gone (Dixons, Woolworths, Wm. Low [a Scottish supermarket chain bought by Tesco in the 90s]), and while those may be a necessary or relevant part of the story, to name them feels like a shortcut: as if I’m merely listing the detail of a period without capturing the texture. But surely the texture of an era lies in the ephemeral things (as I noted in my article on nostalgia)?

If I think of things that differentiate a street in 1988 from one in 2018, what is there? More graffiti now (but how do you express the absence of graffiti?); more street furniture now (again, how do you suggest that?). What was there but no longer is? It’s a tricky one to navigate.


“This time I will definitely do some writing while I’m on holiday”

Who am I kidding? Every holiday, I take pad and pen. Every holiday, they remain untouched.

I think, though, that it’s important I take them. It symbolises my intent. And if I don’t actually put pen to paper, then I can spend time plotting and planning, right?

Well, no. Not really. Not consciously, anyway. I spend the time with my family. I barely think about whatever project I’m working on.

But the time away does help – to invoke a cliche – to recharge the batteries. Without the pressure of trying to think of the next scene or of a character’s motives, ideas pop up that might not otherwise, now that you’re removed from your normal environment.

So I’ll enjoy my holiday and not worry about not writing. But the tools are there, if I need them.


Progress update: I’m committed to a book review. The first draft is almost complete, though I’m unlikely to finish it before the holiday starts. Enough is written to make completion a straightforward priority on my return, and the deadline is the beginning of September.

The folk horror work (what do I call it? Novel? Novella? Novelette?) progresses. Over 13,000 words now, and spilling from my Parker Jotter at twice the speed that the now-dormant fantasy novel ever did. I’m trying to strike a balance between wanting it to be a work of literary merit and my instinct to make it read like a 1980s pulp horror novel. It wants to be both.

Right now – first draft – that’s not a problem. The priority in the first draft is to get the story told. The way you tell it can wait until you begin to re-write, to an extent: but I always need to know which voice or whose viewpoint a particular scene will be told from. I find that this unlocks the episode for me, and gives me a way in. Nothing I can’t change later.

There also comes a point, after sending a manuscript to agencies and publishers, where you concede defeat. Yes, maybe the book is good, but it’s not quite good enough to capture the mass-market that agents and editors are after. So with that in mind, I’m thinking about serialising the Robin Hood novel on this blog. It’s a few years old now, and my interest in doing anything with it has faded, given that the fantasy novel and – hopefully – the folk horror work are both better-structured and better-written. But the Robin Hood novel romps along and is quite good fun, or so I hope. I’ve nothing to lose and, ideally, a few readers to gain. Are you interested?

Summer Reading

In Scotland the schools are off, and the weather has been uncharacteristically summery since late May. I’m away on holiday. Time to share with you what I’ve been reading in this fine weather, and what’s in the suitcase for the trip to Kernow.

  • The Devil Rides Out – Dennis Wheatley: 1930s black magic horror hokum. “Of its time” in the sense that its racist, sexist and classist; despite all this, the basis of Hammer’s enjoyable 1968 film. If a horror writer’s own fears can be deduced from what they portray in the most ghastly terms, thenĀ forget all the Satanism stuff. In the orgiastic scenes, people fall upon piles of food without using cutlery! The horror!
  • Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock: a mythago is an archetype; a figure from our collective unconscious. The prototypes of the likes of Robin Hood and King Arthur haunt an ancient woodland. A man recently returned from World War 2 searches for his brother in its unmapped depths. Wonderful, and as deep and many-layered as the wood itself.
  • The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whiteley: Delicately-told weird fiction, set in the aftermath of World War 1. A writer I intend to read more of.
  • Black Static #57 – Bi-monthly horror magazine, with good long-form fiction and many reviews; includes a story by Aliya Whiteley (above).
  • Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce: a girl went missing twenty years ago, and turns up not a day older. Was she really abducted into the land of faery?
  • Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley: the dark rituals of a hidden Lancashire valley pull one of its sons back into the family orbit.


Still to read:

  • Four Colour Fear: anthology of 1950s American horror comics. Full-on brain-eating gross-out fun. These are what prompted the formation of the Comics Code Authority.
  • The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers: Great cover. Dark historical fiction rooted in the Yorkshire landscape, and based on a genuine story of counterfeiting in the 18th century.
  • Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place – Benjamin Myers: Myers again. Non-fiction this time, and what looks like a poetic yet unflinching piece of “nature writing” (horrible term; we need a better one).
  • The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland – John Lewis-Stempel. More nature writing, this time looking at the English farming landscape; what’s to be found, and what’s been lost.
  • Nutmeg #8: Scottish football journal. A new one to me: I don’t follow football nearly as much as I used to, but the World Cup (and Scotland’s repeated absence from it) is unavoidable. This looks like football’s answer to cycling’s game-changing Rouleur magazine.