Guest Blog — Stephen Palmer

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And what better way to revive my blog than with a guest blog by the incomparable Stephen Palmer. (Next up will be a review of The Girl With Two Souls.)

FACTORY GIRL / CRAFTING AUTHOR: CONSTRUCTING THE WORLD OF FACTORY GIRL

Though I use the word crafting in the title of this guest blog, opposing factory production lines, it is in jest. The Arts & Crafts leader William Morris was ambivalent on the place of the machine in nineteenth century manufacturing, though at heart he did want a new tradition of crafting, where the qualities of the materials being used were truly appreciated both by the individual and by society.

In a blog post earlier this year introducing the Factory Girl trilogy – The Girl With Two Souls / The Girl With One Friend / The Girl With No Soul – I wrote: ‘In September 2013 I was watching the news one evening when I began thinking about a writing project that had been bubbling up from my subconscious. Unusually for me the title had come first, and I’d had it for quite a while – The Girl With Two Souls. Who was this girl? When and where did she live? Suddenly a few ideas popped into my head. I grabbed an empty notebook and began jotting down the ideas as they arrived. Soon it was a deluge. When I looked up, two hours had passed by – in a subjective twenty minutes. I had outlined the entire structure of the trilogy: all the main characters, what would happen, how, where, when and why.’
This kind of full, sudden inspiration comes rarely enough, even to prolific authors such as me. I can only remember a couple of times when it happened before, one of which was the creation of the book that eventually turned into my 1996 debut Memory Seed. But once I had the characters, the basic ideas and the trilogy structure in my notebook, what then?

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Constructing a large scale world is the task of the crafting author – inspiration, creation, complexity, authenticity, truth. Like all authors I love that time preparing a work when the ideas are flowing thick and fast and the milieu becomes ever more sophisticated, ever more real. But the Factory Girl trilogy was a major departure for me: my first serious novel set in a historical period. Admittedly it was an alternate Britain of 1910, but I wanted the world to be as true to history as possible
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Yet I didn’t do much by way of research. My ‘research’ tends to be ongoing – I mostly read non-fiction these days, so everything I read goes into a great pot labelled ‘Possibly Useful.’ However I did read one particularly helpful book, Max Arthur’s Lost Voices of the Edwardians: 1901–1910 in Their Own Words, which is a wonderful oral history of the period, delivered from a wide range of social stations. I even lifted a famous comment made by a Suffragette when demeaned by a male speaker, mentioned in the book. The book was also useful for surnames, for instance Honey, a surname I’d never encountered before, which I applied to a mechanic and film pioneer in Manchester.

The other research I did was more of inclination than anything else. The milieu’s theme is the nature of the automata made by Sir Tantalus Blackmore’s Factory, used in parallel with the human themes. I watched a fascinating documentary called ‘Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams,’ in which Professor Simon Schaffer details the extraordinary automata made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was first broadcast by the BBC in summer 2013, and it may well have inspired the Factory Girl automata. Either way, it is a superb documentary, which I’ve re-watched a couple of times since. Another film that inspired me was Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo,’ in which a young boy and a young girl have to find the truth behind a broken automaton and a notebook – a wonderful and emotional film, with two terrific central performances from the young actors; also a great performance by Ben Kingsley, and a surprisingly chilling, yet sensitive and witty performance by Sacha Baron Cohen.

There was a small amount of other serious research that I had to do, but I can’t mention it here because of spoilers. Overall, my research load was light. I imagined as much as I could in freedom.

Of course, constructing a fictional world isn’t only research. It’s surprising what details can illuminate a reader’s mind. In creating Sir Tantalus Blackmore’s automata I devised an instruction system based on stenography; the novel has strong themes of religion and science, so I invented an angelic class of automaton; and there was the vast, anvil-headed black cloud which perpetually hangs over the five mile wide Factory…

Then there was the matter of accents and dialect. The Factory Girl trilogy is mostly set in Sheffield (a British city in Yorkshire), where people speak with distinctive accents. One of the earliest lessons I learned as a youthful writer was the importance of conveying character through idiosyncrasies of speech, and accent is an important part of that. But in Britain it is not uncommon to hear the Yorkshire accent spoofed by comedians (Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch is world famous), so I knew I had to be very careful. Luckily I had a good friend at work who was a Yorkshire lass, so I went to her for advice – which I then partially ignored. But her advice was very useful. The problem with accents is how far to go. An author can never use it at all for the sake of maximum readability, or they can use it thick and full for maximum authenticity, like Richard Adams’ Geordie fox, The Tod, in The Plague Dogs. But The Tod’s speech is almost unintelligible, and, for me, his sections make for uncomfortable reading – and mostly skimmed. So I decided to go for a happy medium, using many of the characteristics of a Yorkshire accent, and using them consistently, but not going too far. Doubtless I’ll get some complaints of inauthenticity though…

So the world of Factory Girl is a mixture of real research from academic books, free-floating imagination enjoyed during day-dreaming episodes, and proper history. Though the work is set in an alternate Britain I did want it to have the oil and grease, the muck and mud, and the noise and din of Edwardian times. I wanted realistic accents in my imaginary scenes, accents which are not least the sign of realistic characters.

William Morris said, “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.” He also wrote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I hope I have crafted something that was worth making, and I do hope it has a certain oil-stained, grease-smudged beauty…

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