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Archive for April, 2012

There was mayhem at the Bath Fair of 1839. For years the event had been held at Lansdown, high above the city on the flat-lands that abounded the Bath Road. They had been largely peaceable affairs and widely enjoyed. In the early morning farmers would congregate to buy and sell livestock. In the afternoon the local population all gathered to see the wonders of “Wombwell’s Menagerie.”

“Wombwell’s Menagerie” was essentially a travelling zoo with tigers and elephants and other exotic animals, together with merry-go-rounds and swings,  stalls and sideshows. But the fair always attracted a large number of more informal drinking-booths, dancing-tents, contests of skill, and games of chance.

At ten o’ clock on the night of the 10th August 1839 the Sangers, owners of “Wombwell’s Menagerie,” decided to shut up shop earlier than usual. The crowd had been more boisterous than usual and from early evening fights had begun to break out around the showground. But as the Sangers began packing up the tents and stalls, “Carroty Kate” arrived at the head of a large contingent of already drunk residents of the Avon Street area of the city. George Sanger described her as:-

 “a red-headed virago, a big brutal animal, caring nothing for magistrates or gaol, who had long been the terror of every respectable person in Bath and its neighbourhood.”

Kate’s gang soon began looting the drinking-booths and beating their owners. Anything they could not drink or carry, they smashed. Booths and stalls were wrecked and burned. Many, including children, ran and hid in the surrounding fields and woods in fear of their lives.

Eventually Kate and her gang headed back to the city. But James Sanger loaded his blunderbuss, gathered the showmen together and set off in waggons, pursuing them. They caught a dozen of the fleeing rioters, including Kate. The men they tied together with tent ropes, like a human chain. Then as though it was a tug-of-war contest they dragged them back and fro through a deep pond. When they were half-drowned the show-men dragged them towards the waggons.

One of the rioters shouted,”Are you a-going to kill us? Ain’t you done enough?”

“Not half enough,” one of the showmen replied.

A captive called out, “Murder! Murder!”

“Shut it!” came the answer. “Save your breath for the next scene. You’ll want it then!”

Their captors tied them, two by two to the wheels of the waggons and flogged them with riding whips. After two dozen lashes each they sent them back to the city, barely able to walk. Then they turned to Kate.

The proprietor of a wax-works tent, a woman, shouted, “We’re not going to drag ‘ee through the pond, bad as you wants washin’, nor use the horse-whips to ‘ee, but you’re a-going to be made to smart all the same.” Four of the women in the party then held Kate over a trestle while two others beat her with canes before releasing her.

The rioters who escaped capture by the show-folk fared little better. They were met by the police as they entered the city. Another skirmish ensued. Several were arrested and later transported. One of the rioters though, severely injured a policeman with an iron bar. He was later tried and hung, for wounding with intent to murder. History does not record what became of “Carrotty Kate.”

Avon Street was a dangerous place to be – and to be from.

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Many authors have produced their own sets of Writing Rules. The longer version (below) by Kurt Vonnegut is fairly well known and remains one of my favourites, though it was aimed more at short story writers than novelists. I think it’s a good guide because it is less prescriptive than many, yet in a way it is far more demanding.   Vonnegut’s “rules” look at writing predominantly from the reader’s perspective. The writer is simply fulfilling their side of a two-way contract between reader and writer; the book, a bridge between the two.

The Long Version

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut’s “rules” don’t seek to provide a guide to writing a bestseller or a book which will attract critical acclaim. Instead they emphasise the need for the writer to empathise with and respect their potential reader,  to acknowledge the work a reader has to do if the book is to work for them. He had in fact drawn up an earlier list which was even more succinct:-

The Short Version

1. Find a subject you care about

2. Do not ramble, though

3. Keep it simple

4. Have guts to cut

5. Sound like yourself

6. Say what you mean

7. Pity the readers

Like any good writer he opens and closes with his strongest messages and maintains a strong thread between the two.

The opening point relates to the true freedom of the writer as Vonnegut sees it. For him, freedom lies not in style, or the ability to write as you want, but in the choice of subject matter and how it is communicated.  And if the writer doesn’t care about their subject, why should the reader?

The final point though, to my mind has the greatest impact. Vonnegut explained it like this, “They (the readers) have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately…Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient writers, ever willing to simplify and clarify — whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”

Perhaps he should have added – or at least trying to.

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The demands a writer makes on a reader are quite incredible. Embarking on a new novel the reader is expected to suspend their own life, to ignore their surroundings, and to use their imagination to enter the writer’s imaginary world – and the world of the novel is constructed entirely of words.

Every sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, is entirely imaginary. Each emotion the reader feels is triggered (or not) by imagined experiences. Every character is a figment of the writer’s imagination. There are no actors, sound-track, special effects, atmospheric lighting, or carefully directed camera work to assist them, simply words arranged on a page. And the reader has to translate those words into moving pictures and see them from a new perspective, to empathise with the characters, to care about what might happen to them, and to react to what does.

Yet no two readers will see that imagined world in quite the same way. They will often see it differently than the writer intended, bringing their own perspectives and expectations and experiences to bear. And while it’s naturally exciting to see my book published,  I have also come to realise that the world of “Avon Street,” that I spent so long creating is no longer mine. Now the book is out there I have no say in how it should be read, or what people should think of my characters, or their stories, or my ability to convey them.

The use of plot, sub-plot, pace, characterisation, dialogue, settings, atmosphere, style, and use of language are all finalised now. They are set in print and cannot be changed. Whether I have got the balance is right is for the reader to judge. I just hope that those who read it, enjoy it; and that the world of “Avon Street”  and its inhabitants feels real, and stays with it’s readers, at least for a while.

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