tales of the zeppelin artwork by frazer irving

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Stealing Souls

Posted on Aug 24, 2015 by John Scotcher

Writers are thieves.  We are constantly on the lookout for things we can steal and put into our stories.  Tell us a good anecdote, we’ll steal it.  Do something memorable, we’ll steal it.  Show any kind of personality, we’ll steal it.  So today, I thought I should apologise for our collective kleptomania, starting with my own.

I have managed to get my own larceny a little more under control in “The Boy in Winter’s Grasp”.  In “Extras”, my version of the embarrassing first novel all writers must live with, there was such a blatant plunder of friends’ lives that one character was so based on someone I knew, I didn’t even bother changing the name!  They say that a novelist’s first work is autobiographical, but one can go too far.  You’ll be able to decide for yourself when, against my better judgement, I release an Kindle version of Extras at the end of March.  Trust me, it won’t be pretty.

The theft in TBIWG has taken a different form.  For (hopefully) the vast majority of readers that don’t know me personally, much of it will pass them by, which is a good thing.  For some of those that do know me, there will be some points where I commit the cardinal sin of pulling them out of the story.  The problem, you see, is names. 

I started a bad habit in chapter one.  Without giving too much away yet, a list of children is discussed, the children mentioned by name.  As I wrote the chapter, ten long years ago (phew), it occurred to me it would be a nice ‘shout out’ to a friend of mine to include her name in the list.  Thus the habit began. 

Now, it doesn’t happen too much.  There are perhaps a dozen names in the story that belong to those I know.  My friends will recognise only some of those, because in a couple of cases I don’t even use the full name.  That the annoying dog that appears in the first ‘act’ is named after a particularly annoying ex-colleague of mine would likely have remained a secret forever, had I not just mentioned it.  However, they are there, and they are staying.  Sorry.

Then of course there are the places.  The village of Alton, where my young heroes live at the start of the book is an amalgamation of my favourite bits of the Oxfordshire villages around Henley-On-Thames, not the least of which is Aston.  Its pub, ‘The Flowerpot’, has become ‘The Stumblepot’ in my story.  Don’t ask me what a Stumblepot is.  I have no idea.

There are other fantastical places in my story.  Mostly stolen from the remote places I have written the book in.  The Minack Theatre in Cornwall has been mutated into a cliff-top nunnery, a forest close by Dolwyddelan in Wales; the last desperate stand for a doomed group of gypsies (as opposed to a big fat wedding).  At least however, places cannot give you away.

Where my theft delves to its lowest ebbs is where I have stolen souls.  Two of my leading characters, both female, are so imbued with the souls of two of my real friends that there have been times I have felt positively invasive.  I won’t do the friends the disservice of mentioning them in public, just on the very remote off-chance I get more than six readers in the future and their privacy gets compromised by legions of obsessed fans!  Ha ha ha. 

Instead, I will mention the characters they have become.  Sama is a tom-boy, who is really the action hero of the book and absolutely my best friend within its pages (which makes me guilty I give her such a rough time).  At seventeen, she is doing all she can to avoid being pushed into the tedious life of a young Edwardian lady and managing a pretty good job of avoiding it.  Eleila, is another young woman trying to make her way in a world dominated by men.  She is brusque, quick to anger and feisty and hates to be wrong. 

That I have two such strong and interesting characters as the main companions for the central character, Christopher, is a testament to the young women who inspired them (both of who are likely reading this and thinking of something insulting to say to me).  In the ten years plus since I finished the fully formed character plan and synopsis for the book, both have grown older, possibly wiser, and both have become mothers.  I hope they will view my theft with some sense of sentimentality and recognise something in the characters of the people they were.

So that apology.  Well, now I have reached the end of this post, I find myself unwilling to give it.  In fact, I will go so far as to encourage writers to continue in their pilfering.  Without such actions, books and plays and films and poems and all the other many forms of storytelling that start with a writer’s idea would be much poorer for it.   So, if you’re here because you love fiction, I guess you’re just going to have to accept that you are constantly encouraging thieves and live with it!

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