Time to get serious. In between other things I’ve been researching various aspects of life in 1841-2 to fill in details of the lives my characters lived. The cogitations have so far produced four main threads to the narrative. Since it’s a sequel to The Figurehead, it’ll naturally be concerned with the making of ships and all the carvings that involves, so the setting for the action is Aberdeen harbour and the business that goes on there.
The first thread is part of that business, too, because the central female character (Helen) is strong-willed and refuses to fit her stereotype. Her father is a highly successful ship-owning merchant and, as his only child, she wants to learn more and to help him with his transatlantic trade. First, though, she has to persuade him that her involvement is a good idea.
The second thread is one which will contrast very strongly with these commercial pursuits and with the fairly settled life of the tradesmen who build and fit out the vessels which make Aberdeen such a thriving place. There’s going to be a troupe of actors presenting some plays at the Theatre Royal, Aberdeen. Acting in the middle of the 19th century was a larger than life business – all colour, exaggeration, artificiality and passion. The most popular form (aside from Shakespeare) was melodrama and, from about 1830, nautical melodramas were all the rage. That seems too good an opportunity to miss. I can put people who, every night, strut about pretending they’re involved in the hazards and drama of shipboard adventures beside others who know what it is to sail to the whaling grounds in winter and thrash to and fro across the Atlantic. Also, if I throw into this staid, provincial society some beautiful actors (male and female) who have access to great chat-up lines stolen from plays, heads may be turned, jealousies may ferment and mayhem could ensue.
The third thread also involves Helen and is a love story. It began to grow in (and tried to take over) The Figurehead and it needs to be properly resolved now.
All that remains is to fill in details of the fourth thread which, because I write crime novels, has to be a murder (or several if need be). But the strange thing here is that, while I can envisage some of the exchanges that’ll take place between the characters and some of the conflicts and stresses they’ll feel, I don’t yet have an idea of the nature of the crime, its victim or its perpetrator. I want to link it with an unsolved murder which was mentioned in The Figurehead and I know the type of person who’ll commit this particular crime but as yet he/she doesn’t exist as an individual.
I’ve never expressed thoughts such as this about any of my previous novels and I’m not sure whether they evolved in the same way at all. This time, though, I’m trying to write the thing and, at the same time, observe the processes involved in doing so. Which is a pretty good displacement activity.
(This, by the way, is another posting I may live to regret in that, just as when I wrote of starting the research, it commits me to a course of action which may lead nowhere or to a very different story from the one I’m sketching out here. But the idea that a book may emerge from this woolly, insubstantial thinking is a nice thought to carry around.)