Two heads are better than one (just ask Zaphod Beeblebrox)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Having recently chosen to engage my mind more, by writing two books at once, it’s going well, in a neural spaghetti kind of way. I’m almost always doing more than one thing at once, but still favouring one. In a funny way, my latest split personalities seem to be egging one another on.

HHGG Fan ArtThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan art.

I don’t multitask well in real life (away from writing), because one of the things I’m doing is usually writing, which takes precedence. I have in the past been known to neglect things dangerously (like food) while furiously getting something down in words. And when you live alone, there are few people to talk to. A socially anxious writer can make people up, and the one with plenty of family matters on their mind can talk to those people from the past.

In the fictional world, I now have three short stories lined up for publication: two sci-fi and a horror. That means my next collection – The Unfinished Literary Agency – will most likely be out earlier than planned. At least one of the new stories involves a warping of time, to the future. One of the reasons the fiction is flowing so well, is not a rush to get the book out, but rather oddly, writing the factual narratives in my family history book.

I always research my fiction, to make it plausible. And I put myself in there, so that there’s more in the words than say, what a character says. I’ve been described as writing from the heart and with feeling (especially for my children’s book, by a magazine judging panel), and the heart I have is very much in my family book, about the family who gave me a heart.

It’s not even that I never write non-fiction. I take work from freelance clients, and write about anything from a US country music tour to smoking cannabis for a medical blog.

What it is, is that this family history is something I can get as broadly and deeply into as fiction, and what that should mean is I produce the book I was aiming to: The stories of quiet people, brought into focus in a book with heart and feeling.

I was a little nervous that it might only gain a small audience, which didn’t matter, as it’s a gift. But that needed to be something which the recipients would want to share. And if we’re all honest, other people’s family isn’t of any great interest. I’m sure I’m not alone in being the one among a group cooing over a baby, “Oh, ain’t he cute…”, thinking, ‘No, he ain’t,’ sometimes aloud.

But what many other families would have in common, if there were enough researchers to look into it, is a rich history which surrounded them and that they were a part of. My parents were part of the cast of extras which made the stories of others noteworthy to record-keepers of the time, and those records are now available online. It’s going through those archives which has thrown up so many fascinating stories which I can now tell, mostly of people besides my parents, but characters who will increase the reading demographic, and who were supported by the two lead characters in my book, Silent Gardens (very much due in March).

The book is becoming a lesser-known secret than it already was (hi mum), as I’ve had cause to phone my parents a few times to check things (writing non-fiction means that research is even more crucial than for plausible fiction). Whether or not the book sells to a wider audience, I like to share things I find. I believe stories should be told, and I’m someone who can tell stories.

In the last family history post, I left off at Yotes Court in Mereworth, which my book goes on to describe in greater detail than this:

Country Life, June 18th and 25th, 1964, CXXXV, 1580, 1648. Yotes Court is listed Grade I as a very early example of the type of country house that became dominant after the Restoration. As a building of importance and quality of the Commonwealth period it has great rarity value.

In 1974, something happened, and all I knew at the time was that we were leaving home. My dad’s boss, Leslie (or Lesley) MacKay was a stockbroker, and those were the days of three-day weeks. The markets moved and Mr MacKay (“Sir” to dad), needed to make redundancies. There were two groundskeepers, my dad and Art.

Arthur Holdstock and his wife Jean became surrogate uncle and aunt to me and my sister, and visits to their house were always inappropriately funny. Back at Yotes Court, Art was also Mr MacKay’s driver, and he could drive with one more wheel than my dad’s three, so our lives were packed into the back of that red Reliant and we chugged off, next, to Ightham.

Mum, dad and the Holdstocks remained friends for many years. After Yotes Court, Art was an undertaker for a while, and my younger self was fascinated by real-life tales from the morgue.

Mr MacKay divorced from his first wife, who moved to nearby Wateringbury, where we lived in the Old Hoy Cottages. He passed away while still living at the house with his second wife, Jane.

The auction-catalog.com online archive includes an auction brochure, dated Monday 16th April 1984, for “The remaining contents of Yotes Court…” and “Includes the property of Mrs L MacKay,” which was described as Fine Victorian Pictures, Drawings, and Watercolours.

Given that it was fairly common practice among the upper class, for a wife to take her husband’s full name in formal documents, I had to conclude (with research avenues exhausted) that this Mrs L MacKay was in fact Jane. They had two daughters, which makes further research into how the house came to be sold (perhaps to divide an estate) somewhat pertinent. By then though, the Lakers had moved on.

Another stockbroker owned our next house, and there was to be more news of the stock market later. But when we moved there, mum and dad’s employers and landlords were the Byam-Cooks.

Philip Byam-Cook was a lawyer, and his father, William Byam, a Harley Street doctor. The power of the internet means that with a few clicks, I can find information freely online which would have once taken weeks, and which would have taken me to many repositories of accumulated knowledge in person. Now, I can gather most of the information I need, without having to leave this studio where I live and write.

By coincidence, I live just a few minutes from an address where Philip Byam-Cook was registered as a director of various companies, with an accountant in West Malling. This would be entirely consistent with a practitioner in law…

***

I’m well into the next chapter now, when we lived for 12 years in Ightham. It turns out Philip was a bit of a World War II humanitarian hero. I’ll post some more here once I’ve got the events in order, as it makes for an interesting read.

Although I’d like to be judged on any of my books, I feel that everything I write is better than the last. I’ll hang my hat on Cyrus Song as a sci-fi for a long time, but I’d equally like to be judged on my non-fiction, in an introverted story with a lot of heart.

So like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the sci-fi writer with two heads is just a bit mixed up. In my own mind, it’s a nice entanglement: I found my heart, it’s been stolen, and it’s been stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, like the Heart of Gold dream ship with its infinite improbability drive in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

This is the inside of my mind, and you’re welcome to it.

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