Saturday, 27 February 2010

A giant research problem

On the Litopia After Dark podcast last night, one of the subjects was research, and how important it is for a writer to get the facts right, even in fiction. With The Manx Connection and The Manx Giant: The Amazing Story of Arthur Caley under my belt, both non-fiction, host Peter Cox asked if there was point where I had to say, okay, enough already.

I agreed - with both books, but particularly The Manx Giant, I could have carried on with the research for another year. Or two. Maybe even three. And I still wouldn't have found out everything there is to know about Caley. The problem I faced was that after he was reported dead in Paris, aged 28, no one knew he was alive - so he spent the next 30-odd years in the US under another name, Colonel Routh Goshen. It was only when Goshen died that it came to light that he and Caley were one in the same.

Most of the information about Caley/Goshen was found in snippets here and there, most of them online. Just when I thought I was done, I'd google his name... and find another piece of research. And so it went on. Eventually, I held my hands up and agreed with the publisher to call it a day.

From the moment the book came out, I've been waiting for emails and phone calls to say, hang on Quirk, how come you missed this fact out?

When I mentioned this on the podcast, I completely forgot that, earlier the same day, I'd received a Google alert advising that a photograph of Caley/Goshen was for sale on Ebay - you can see it here - and, as it turns out, it's a picture we weren't aware of, either myself or the descendant of the Giant who approached me to write the book. It's an impressive photograph, too, with the other two men in the picture providing some scale to appreciate Caley's height and build.

So, it's started. I don't doubt for one minute that it will be the last picture or piece of information to come to light. Now, if lovely readers can ensure the first print run sells out, I might have the opportunity to revise the manuscript for the second edition...

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Needed - one Big Red Pen & short-term insomnia

Right. Enough faffing about. It's time.

Quackenbush, one of the young adult novels I've been working on for the last few years, has been sat gawping at me from the top of the bookshelf for the last four months, ever since I put the Manx Giant to bed and vowed to jump back into QB.

It's at the stage that many writers will understand - first draft almost finished, but in need of the mother of all edits to knock it into shape. An edit so daunting that the mere thought of it has me itching to crack open a four-pack and stick The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on the DVD.

It's not like I've been putting it off. Okay, it's a lot like that. But there has been other stuff on the go, so it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. Yet the fact remains; unless decisive action is taken, the bloody thing will most likely be staring down at me in six months' time.

So, I've made a decision. Well, that's not strictly true. I've been bullied into making a decision, by a writerly friend. Pippa, who blogs here, is a friend from the Skeealleyderyn writers' group. Earlier today she blogged about how she was shedding her procrastinating skin and getting her act together by signing up for the National Novel Editing Month in March, the sister event of the novel writing month held each year in November.

The goal - to log 50 hours editing during the 31 days of March, which, so they say, is a reasonable amount of time to edit a book of 60,000-70,000 words. I'll take their word for it.

I had a go at NaNoWriMo back in 2006 - in fact, QB was the project, and I somehow crawled over the 50,000-word mark with a few hours to spare. I've not attempted NaNoWriMo since, because other commitments haven't allowed. I've never even been to the NaNoEdMo website, but earlier today I found myself having a quick skeet. And then it hit me; this is what QB has been waiting for. And Pippa didn't waste any time twisting my arm.

So I'm going for it. Not out of any great desire to earn myself a little NaNoEdMo badge or logo to stick on this here blog. And not out of a need to band with like-minded souls, because there's more than enough over at Litopia.

No, I'm going to sign up because I just need a focus - a deadline to set my sights on, because deadlines work. I haven't the first clue where I'm going to find the time to do this during March, but what the hell. It's got to be done. So, here we go. Watch this space, and I'll keep the updates coming. Feel free to fire over words of encouragment. I'll surely need 'em...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A close encounter of the spectral kind

What follows is a true story. It happened three or four months back, but I resisted the urge to write about it at the time, wanting to allow 20/20 hindsight to come up with some logical explanation. It hasn't. So here we are - I've not dressed it up in any way whatsoever; it happened exactly as follows:

A regular route of mine when out on a jaunt to clear the old cobwebs takes me down towards the back of the Kentraugh Estate, which overlooks the sea just along from Gansey beach. Kentraugh is one of the most intriguing estates on the Isle of Man. I'm not sure how far it dates back, but certainly two or three hundred years, and Kentraugh Mill is mentioned in records dating back to 1506.

As you approach from the rear, the entire estate appears to be shrouded in trees, the skyline broken only by the mansion house. The road leading to Kentraugh forks at the very back of the estate, with the two roads winding round to meet up with the main road that crosses in front of the estate, with tree-lined driveways at both east and west boundaries.

From the rear of the estate, the left fork in the road takes you past some huge decrepit old gates, beyond which you can glimpse what I imagine are old farm buildings. In years past it must have been a bustling hive of activity, but now looks like the kind of place you'd expect to see Peter Cushing sticking a stake through Christopher Lee's heart. I've never set foot in the estate, but have long wished to.

One chilly night last autumn I set off about nine o'clock to walk to Kentraugh and do a lap of the estate, before returning home. I'm not, it has to be said, the kind of person who spooks easily; by the age of ten or so I'd pretty much devoured the entire catalogue of Hammer horror films, including all the Cushing/Lee Dracula yarns, and by the time the early 80s arrived, with their slasher movies, I sat oblivious, as a young teen, to the gore and supposed chills served up by the likes of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The autumn night in question was dry, but overcast, with not a star in sight. I'd done about half a mile when I realised that I'd forgotten to bring a torch, which isn't normally a problem on my walks, as the roads I usually trek at night have streetlights. But this night I had my heart set on a lap of Kentraugh, and I knew the two roads that encircled the estate would be pitch black. No worries, I thought. I knew the place well, if I took it slowly I'd be fine.

As I approached the fork in the road, I left the streetlights behind and plunged into the darkness ahead. There are some cottages at the fork, so there was a bit of light, but this was soon lost as I turned left, heading down the slight incline towards the ruined gates and farm buildings. I had to slow to a gentle pace, almost feeling my way ahead with each step. After about fifty yards I glanced up and saw what looked like a figure to my left, walking by the wall, heading in the same direction as I was. I was in the middle of the road and as I drew nearer I got the impression it was a little old man, walking very slowly. This was merely guesswork, because all I could make out was a shape, a black outline against the dark grey/black of the wall and the night.

I don't know why I thought it was a man; something about his gait, perhaps, but I just knew it was a man and not a woman. And he had to be old to be moving at that speed; either that or he was a younger man on his way home after the mother of all sessions at the Colby Glen pub.

As I drew nearer, I kept glancing between the figure and what I could make out of the road in front of my feet. I was keeping an eye on the man because I didn't want to scare the bejesus out of him, so was waiting till I was up level, at which point I planned on saying a measured 'hello' as I passed. I'd almost reached him when the tall old gates appeared on my right. I looked at them, back down at my feet and then up at the old man. I was right up by his shoulder now. I took another look down, then glanced back up, preparing to greet him as I drew level.

When I looked up, he was gone. It remains the only time in my life where the phrase 'stopped dead in my tracks' can apply. I looked behind, and ahead, and then back at the wall where the figure should have been. Nothing. Then, what felt like every single hair on my body began to tingle. Back of the neck: check. Along my arms: check. It felt like there was electricity running down from my shoulders to my forearms. I looked around again, at the other side of the road, and moved over towards the wall where the old man was just a moment before. Nothing. I even checked along the ground, to make sure he hadn't fallen over.
'Hello?' I said, turning around in a full circle once more. 'Hello?' Silence.

At this point I wasn't sure what to do. So I did the only thing that made any sense; I started walking again, past the old gates and out towards the main road. The rest of the walk was spent trying to come up with an explanation as to what had happened. When I completed the lap of the estate, and stood again at the fork in the road, I was tempted to head off on a second lap, to see if I encountered the man again.

Something made me head home. Was I scared? I don't think so, but I was certainly unnerved. I'd never seen anything that could be classed as a 'ghost'. The nearest thing to a supernatural experience came in 1995, when I was staying the night at an inn in Blackburn, which a friend of mine from the town had told me was haunted. I was playing pool in the bar, one of those rooms with chairs lined up along each of the walls, and it was a busy night, with most of the seats taken as I played a game against one of the locals. It was about halfway through the game, and I was about to take a shot down at one end of the table. I could see the black out of the corner of my eye, and needed to screw the white past the black to get down to the other end of the table for my next shot. As I was about to hit the cue ball, I saw the black move. It rolled for about an inch, maybe two. It wasn't on a spot, so hadn't 'rolled off'. There was no one else anywhere near the table, there was no breeze blowing in from an open window, and my arm wasn't near enough for me to have hit it accidentally. I looked up at my friend, who, along with one or two of the locals, merely gave a wry smile and shrugged, as if to say, hey, told you so.

Other than that encounter, I'd never experienced anything like the events that occurred at Kentraugh. Nothing physical, nothing visible. My initial reaction was that it had been my shadow, but when the figure disappeared I checked; it was overcast, there was no streetlight, or moonlight, and besides, you know when you're looking at your shadow. This wasn't it.

Maybe it was merely a trick of the night, or perhaps my eyesight, which was strained with trying to see potholes and obstacles in the road, saw something that wasn't there. I've always been somewhat skeptical about folk who regale others with tales of ghosts and other supernatual encounters, which is why I've left this tale to stew for a while.

Yet it won't go away. And it could be because of this; the day after it happened, I shared the tale with a few work colleagues. They suggested I do some research on Kentraugh. I said I would. When I got in that night, a colleague's wife had beaten me to it. She sent me a note on Facebook, suggesting I check out a website link. I did. It told the story of a ghost that supposedly haunts Kentraugh and the surrounding lands. Again, I felt the hair rise on my neck and arms. What kind of ghost? A white lady? A headless horseman? A pale little girl in a flowery dress?

Of course not. It is an old man.