Begin at the beginning

‘Out of the Smoke’ Author’s Commentary

Chapter 1: Up, Up, Up

“Get in there!”
Gerard tightened the rope around Billy’s ankle with a sharp tug and shoved him towards the sheet-draped fireplace. Billy stumbled and almost fell, but he bit back the retort that came all too easily to his lips. It wasn’t worth arguing with Gerard: he would only get fresh bruises for his trouble. Gerard was the master sweep, and Billy was just an apprentice; apprentices kept their mouths shut and did as they were told, or they regretted it.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 1: Up, Up, Up

I probably broke most of the rules of first chapters when I wrote this.

For a start I began with dialogue, which is a big no-no. The first person mentioned is not the main character, or even the main villain. Most of the chapter is the main character thinking about his life up to that point, with very little action of dialogue. And we only get to the inciting incident – the thing that really sets the story in motion – at the very end of the chapter.

Perhaps if I were to write this book again with what I know now, I might do it differently. But I’ve also learned that sometimes you just have to go with your gut and ignore the rules. It’s a risk, and you just have to accept that it may or may not come off.

In this case, happily, it seems to have worked. Which is a relief, because this was always the way this book was going to start.

Authors often get asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” Well, for me they usually come in the form of images, like mind paintings: very vivid and very clear. For the book I’m writing at the moment, set in Tudor England on the cusp of the Reformation, the image was one of a girl in a Tudor dress, on horseback, riding furiously through a snowbound forest at night. I knew this image would come at the very end of the book, and the challenge was to work backwards from that and ask myself: Who is this girl? Why is she riding so hard? What is she trying to do? And why does it matter?

For ‘Out of the Smoke’ the image was simple: a boy climbing a chimney. And I knew this image came at the very start of the book. I wanted to begin in suffocating darkness, and end the chapter by emerging into the fresh air (relatively fresh) of London. For me, the contrast was the important thing. From there, it was a question of finding out who this boy was, why he was climbing this chimney, what he felt about it, and what he would do next.

Starting the book with dialogue was actually inspired by Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. Here’s how it begins:

“So now get up.”
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen: knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

‘Wolf Hall’, Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s opening is much stronger than mine – I don’t mind admitting that. A good writer always knows who to look up to. In fact, I took more than an opening line of dialogue from her: the whole nature of Billy and Gerard’s relationship was informed by the interplay between Thomas Cromwell and his father, Walter. Interestingly, at the time I wrote ‘Out of the Smoke’ I hadn’t read the whole of ‘Wolf Hall’. But the opening chapter – and especially the opening scene – clearly made an impression on me!

He had watched as the mason took apart an upstairs wall brick by brick, until finally the body tumbled on to the floor in a cloud of soot and ash. Billy had watched them wrap it in a sheet and carry it down the backstairs and into the street. After that? A quick burial in one of the common graves, most likely. That was what happened to sweeps. They were cheap, replaceable, and soon forgotten.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 1: Up, Up, Up
‘Death of a chimney sweep in Somers Town’

Many of the things I learned about chimney sweeps were simply too upsetting to include in the book. The main thing was the sheer cost of human life: children were definitely seen as expendable by their masters, and would be treated with almost unbelievable cruelty.

I trod a fine line between being true to life, in order to underscore the importance of Lord Shaftesbury’s work, and being gratuitous. My publisher and I, as well as my editor, Jaime, went back and forth on this topic many times. In the end we erred on the side of caution, to make the book as accessible as possible to a wide audience.

He reached up with both hands, feeling for the smoke shelf, a cramped ledge above the hearth that drew the air through the fireplace and up the narrow flue that formed the spine of the house.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 1: Up, Up, Up

My first major piece of research was what a fireplace and a chimney looked like inside. I had drafted the first chapter very quickly (on holiday in Wales) without having looked into the subject at all. The major mistake I made was one of scale – I had imagined fireplaces as large openings, and the smoke-shelf as a literal shelf that sweeps would be able to squat on. In reality, a fireplace is about 3 feet high, and the smoke-shelf is literally that: a shelf. Rather than climbing in, a sweep would have to squirm. If you’ve ever seen someone potholing (crawling through tiny caves underground) that will give you the right idea.

In my first draft I had Billy squatting on the smoke-shelf and looking up into the chimney. This would be impossible, and I had to hastily change the scene to have him squatting in the hearth – although on reflection even this might be unrealistic!

A shout echoed over the rooftops. Billy turned to see another blackened face poking out of a chimney pot a few houses along the street. It was Tosher, one of the other boys in Gerard’s gang, and the only person Billy would have called a friend.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 1: Up, Up, Up

Tosher’s name is an unusual one. It actually comes from a short story by John Mortimer, one in the series of ‘Rumpole’ stories about a barrister in London: in ‘Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade’, Tosher MacBride is the murder victim. I don’t know why, but the name stuck, and it came back to me when I was naming Billy’s best friend.

I only learned later that a ‘tosher’ was a person in the Victorian era who fished in sewage for lost valuables and odds and ends (‘tosh’). Given my Tosher’s penchant for light thievery, the name turned out to be very appropriate! An example of serendipity at work, perhaps …?

Header illustration copyright Jaime Dill, 2020

3 thoughts on “Begin at the beginning

Add yours

  1. It is hard to get the balance right. I’ve just finished a story set in the time of the Monmouth Rebellion. I have agonised over how to do battle scenes. Too much and you are dwelling on horror. Too little and you trivialise. It is especially difficult if you have no military background or experience of any kind. Watching re-enactments helped but still no one dies in a re-enactment!

    1. A very hard balance to strike! I vowed that my next book would have a zero body count – I think one person dies ‘offstage’ but that’s it. I think it’s also important to convey that the past was not an unrelenting parade of misery – there was plenty of joy, even in darkness. I suppose this is why writing is an art and not a science!

  2. Yes! It is so much harder to write convincingly about happiness than about sadness. I suppose that is because we live in a fallen world.

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