This is the first of what I hope will be many guest articles, by writers describing how they approach the writing process. Here, Stephen Palmer tells of the unexpected approach he took in writing his latest novel, the fabulous Hairy London.
MAKING LONDON HAIRY
BY STEPHEN PALMER
Hairy London it turned out, was neither conceived of nor written in my usual way.
A year or so ago I had cause to locate the notebook or file that, for all previous novels, I’d kept – some of them chunky files full of character details, the plot, the narrative, the milieu and so forth… on occasion there would even be a map. But there didn’t seem to be a notebook for Hairy London; not even a few bits of paper in a plastic envelope. I realised then that when I wrote the novel I’d done it entirely off the top of my head.
That was a first. Also a first was the title coming at the beginning – Hairy London, popping into my head one time when I was watching the news… hmm, what would a hairy capital city be like? Would it be entirely hairy? Could people move around?
The novel was inspired by a short story I wrote for an anthology published by the Eibonvale Press called Where Are We Going? The premise was to present stories about strange, unexplored places on our home planet. I decided (on a whim) to write something set in alternate Victorian times, a Jules Verne type adventure with British chaps doing this, that and the other as they ballooned their way around their massive Empire. It was enormous fun to write, and I winged the whole thing. At the time, I knew there was easily one novel in this particular milieu.
Return to Hairy London, then. Research mostly involved the internet. Though I have a large library of books – mostly non-fiction – I didn’t have much on Victorian chaps living in Victorian society. However I had lots of amusing stereotypes to play with, so I used them; but Marx, Engels, Freud, Jung and Reich all required research. And I discovered some interesting facts: Freud lived in a house in, of all places, suburban north London. Jung developed a theory of the anima and animus – male and female. Wilhelm Reich, who I knew of vaguely from Kate Bush’s fantastic song Cloudbusting, was a highly eccentric psychologist who believed in orgone energy and putting people in small boxes. He was great fun to write. And Marx, of course – the great Marx – was a man of many ideas relevant even today. I don’t think much of his ideas about capitalism and class revolution, but his concept of the human condition was close to the truth (as another noted Marxist, Erich Fromm, revealed in his superb book Marx’s Concept Of Man.)
I also had to research Buddhist ideas of love for a scene where scallywag and no-good-nik Velvene Orchardtide is seeking the truth. What is love, he wonders? Having tried and failed with the three psychologists and a Christian priest, he wonders if Eastern thought might have any notions… but it is all too alien for him. Buddhists see love very differently to us in the West, it turns out. It’s all a bit abstract; cosmic, even.
Then there were some strange languages. I have a big stack of dictionaries at home and one of them is Urdu. From that I extracted a few choice phrases for the Gandy scenes. But when it came to the Teutonic Death, I had to get help. Though I did German at school, and even remember some of it, I wasn’t confident of getting complex sentences across, so I asked the German lecturer at the college where I work to assist, which she did. It turned out that I’d forgotten all German nouns begin with a capital letter…
Anyway, you get the idea. Research was scattergun, fun, and semi-random. Could I write another book like this? I doubt it. I will try, but I doubt it…
To learn more about Stephen Palmer and his writings visit his blog at stephenpalmersf