Life, as I said in an earlier posting, does not fit neatly into novel form. So, having decided to write about my time in Brighton, how do I go about adapting the material to make it into readable fiction?
The story I told in my last posting could have happened to anyone. It's not all that distinctive. It matters to me, but would it matter to a reader who didn't know me? Of course, if I tell it well, it should become interesting simply through the power of the writing, but I always like some kind of hook, some element of drama that will draw the reader in. Here are a couple of examples from my own fiction.
The title story in my collection Singing a Man to Death is about a student trying and failing to start a relationship with a girl he likes. It's not based on any one incident in my life, but condenses several episodes from my time in Cambridge. That sort of thing happened to me a lot, as it does to countless other young men. But I created a plot around this basic, rather dull scenario that is much more unusual. The germ of this was an anecdote I heard once about a lodger who couldn't pay his rent: his landlady stood outside his room every night singing the same supernatural song until he died of it. If you want to know how I managed to bring those two themes together, one banal, the other gothic and bizarre, you'll have to buy my book. The point is that the singing-to-death theme gave me an unusual way in to my story.
The second example is from my other autobiographical story in the same volume, 'The Lovers'. I wanted to write about my schooldays in London, and some of the eccentric friends I had then. When I was about fifteen, one of these friends, not a very close one, died: he had been in the habit of phoning me every Sunday night to find out about the homework for Monday morning, so my number was in his address-book. I got a call from his mother one night to tell me the news. Sudden deaths like that tend to bring things into focus, and I used the scenario to give a structure to what was essentially a group of character sketches. Each of the character's three best friends reacts to it in his own way.
Thinking about my Brighton days, I remembered a similar incident. I won't go into the details here, because, even though it was more than thirty years ago, there will probably be people around who remember it and might be upset - by the time it gets into the novel it should have changed enough to be unrecognizable. It was another death: again a not especially close friend, this time a few years older than me. To make this my focus I would have to make the dead man much more important in my protagonist's life than he was in mine. I would also have to change the time scale; I only knew him for a few months out of my three years in the town. But doing those two things would begin the process of changing reality into fiction. It's the kind of idea that starts me playing around with other changes, other possibilities. Here are my thoughts about these possibilities so far:
I leave out the MA part - the main character will just be doing a PhD, which is lonelier and more interesting. I like the (non-autobiographical) idea that he's studying the literature of polar exploration. There's some nice symbolism there, and irony too - an unadventurous person reading about his polar opposites.
Condense the action into one year for the sake of economy. But what year? If I want to use the Afghanistan crisis directly, it ought to be 1979-80, but many of my strongest memories are from later. I keep asking myself, when did it become fashionable to wear odd socks, or dye your hair?
Cut down on the number of characters - in real life I was a member of several different peer groups over the time period, but these could all be condensed into one.
I'm not sure whether to take a similar approach to the places I lived. There were about half a dozen, all of them strange and memorable. Economy suggests limiting them to one or two, but I also like the idea of a character who is never quite at home, always moving from one set of digs to another.
The character who dies will combine the characteristics of several people I knew. He will also be the voice of several of the ideological and cultural themes I want to write about - this was the time of my first exposure to literary theory and radical politics as well as Space Invaders and Planter's peanuts. (Another date issue - if I move the action later I can have Battlezone, Missile Command and Asteroids instead of Space Invaders?)
In real life I met my first girlfriend on a research trip to Nashville, Tennessee, and she came to see me in Brighton several months later. But I don't want to move the action away from Brighton. I've always liked island stories, and to me it spoils them if some of the action is away from the island. (This is one reason I prefer the edited version of The Wicker Man to the original.) I'd like to keep her American, though, as I'm fascinated by Anglo-American relations. Needless to say the character won't be based on my real girlfriend.
I am wondering whether to use a fictional version of Brighton. A fictional setting gives more freedom, but can seem a bit contrived and silly. I'm suddenly thinking about Brighthelmstone, the original name for Brighton. If I called it that, nobody would be in any doubt where it was meant to be, but I could still feel free to change anything I wanted to. It becomes a version of Brighton in an alternative reality. The name is a bit long, though - Helmstone? It will do for the present. The university I could call Southdown. It feels like a great burden has been taken off my shoulders, the burden of factual accuracy.
Technical issues. First person is simplest and I have always preferred it. I love writing in the present tense, but this story will be in the past. The main character will be narrating it in later life because I want that sense of perspective. Past tense makes it easier to mix up the time frame. (You don't necessarily relate past events in the order they happened, whereas in the present anything non-chronological seems unnatural.) I want the time-frame mixed-up partly because I'm writing about a death. At a certain point the dead man isn't there any more, but his remembered words and actions continue to have an influence.
I have just realized that the older dead friend in this scenario represents my father. I like that: it means that the story is already becoming something different from my life while keeping the same emotional charge.
Next posting will set out the procedure I'm going to use for posting the novel. And then I should be just about ready to begin.