A life of grime

‘Out of the Smoke’ Author’s Commentary

Chapter 2: The Silver Spoon

The journey down was, if anything, more dangerous than the journey up. Flues did not exist in isolation: they ran up the backbone of the house like a river with many tributaries, the flues from three or four different fireplaces all merging together as they rose towards the roof. The possibilities were ripe for losing your way as you descended and encountered places where the flue divided; it was easy to slip down the wrong flue to find yourself behind a bricked-up fireplace, or else encounter a blockage of the soot and ash you had dislodged yourself on the way up.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 2: The Silver Spoon

Being an author of historical fiction is all about the research: how much to do, how long to spend, and, more importantly, how much to include in your story. Too little, and the story isn’t authentic; too much, and the story is smothered. The happiest place to be is when you discover some detail that directly informs the story and makes it more exciting. The composition of chimneys was one of these things.

Here’s an extract from stove.co.uk, a fascinating site that details the writer’s family history and covers much of the working conditions in industrial England in the 1800s:

Even if a chimney didn’t prove too hot when an apprentice entered it to clean, the chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. It was dangerous enough work, even when the master chimney sweep tried to do well by the apprentices. The children not only had to go up these tight, dark chimneys, they had to come back down them after the work was done.

Unfortunately, the turns, twists, and merges of the chimney flues behind the walls of tall buildings created a confusing, pitch black and soot-filled maze that could sometimes be deadly to a young apprentice chimney sweep trying to make it to the roof.

If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue.

As soon as I read that, I knew I had to include it in my story. It’s such a dramatic image: navigating a choking, pitch-black maze behind the walls of a house, inches from civilisation but at risk of dying in an instant. It would come to be an essential part of the plot as well – but more on that later!

Not that it was easy to keep a clear head when Gerard was tugging on his ankle the entire way down, threatening to dislodge him and bring him tumbling to a bone-breaking end.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 2: The Silver Spoon

Sometimes logic scuppers the story. Something you think is reasonable turns out to be unreasonable, or someone points out a hole in your plot that you didn’t know was there. In my case, a few months before publication, when the last few readers were combing over the proof pages, someone raised the question of how Billy could get lost coming down a chimney when he had a rope tied around his ankle.

I was stumped. Honestly, I didn’t have an answer. I had a long conversation with my editor about it, and we thought about taking out the rope – but that was a real thing, and such a strong image of Gerard’s control over Billy that I didn’t want to lose it.

And here’s the point: in the end, the story won out. Yes, there was an argument to be made against the logic of it, but it wasn’t enough to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, so we left it in. The dramatic and emotional power remained the same – and if a few people thought it a bit odd on reflection, I was prepared to accept that.

But it’s funny how these things just don’t occur to the author sometimes when they’re writing, and even after months of editing!

… the little finger on his left hand was permanently curled inwards from the time Gerard had kicked him and broken it, a few days after his parents had sold him.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 2: The Silver Spoon

The little finger on my left hand is slightly curled inwards, from the time I was kicked by someone in steel toe-capped boots. I’m not sure why I gave it to Billy, but it proved a useful feature later in the story.

This is a good point about writing: often I don’t know if the details I’m including will actually be important later, but I include them anyway. My philosophy is to make the world and the characters interesting, and if some of those details end up being ‘important’ later so much the better. But I think if I tried to include too much intentionally important information it would quickly become stilted. I prefer to rely on serendipity – and let me tell you there’s a lot of it around when you’re writing an 80,000-word novel!

Gerard took the money from the last client with his usual obseqious leer …

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 2: The Silver Spoon

When I’m writing I don’t intentionally choose my language to be accessible. I use the word that I feel best fits what I’m trying to say, and I trust that the context will make it clear what it means. In this case, I couldn’t actually tell you a clear definition of ‘obsequious’, but I know it’s a great word and I know I’ve used it in the right way here.

There’s a certain amount of word choice that goes on, much of it instinctual. I tend not to think too much, and concentrate instead on the scene in my head. I suppose the most important point is that the first draft of a scene is usually very different from the final draft. I do a pass where I go back in and re-read, changing words and phrases as I go, shortening sentences, lengthening others, combining some, dividing others. I try to listen to the music of the words in my head, and follow the natural flow of how they want to be said by the invisible narrator.

By the way, dictionary.com defines obsequious as: ‘characterized by or showing servile obedience and excessive eagerness to please‘.. So now you know.

[Tosher] also possessed a battered top hat, which he sometimes perched on top of his head, saying it gave him a distinguished air as befitted the lead apprentice.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 2: The Silver Spoon

I’m not sure whether I saw this picture while I was drafting ‘Out of the Smoke’ and forgot about it, or if it was another example of serendipity at work. In any case, the lad in this image is almost exactly how I pictured Tosher. The first time I can remember coming across this picture was while preparing teaching materials for school visits, and the resemblance to the picture in my mind is uncanny.

Again, I’m not sure why I gave him a top hat. Maybe one of those instances of making characters interesting, and in this case the detail of the hat turned out to be not very important to the overall plot.

It was a tiny, perfect, silver spoon.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 2: The SIlver Spoon

And so at last we get to the true inciting incident of the story: the place where it all kicks off. Although you could argue that happened a few hours earlier when Tosher stole the spoon in the first place.

The reason this comes here is that this was originally the end of the first chapter. Chapter lengths can be funny things. All the advice will tell you to make chapters as long or short as you need them to be in the service of the story, but I just can’t bring myself to write chapters that are super long or super short.

For ‘Out of the Smoke’ I started with quite long chapters, about 6,000-8,000 words; but this felt too long. It felt like you were waiting for the chapter to end long before it actually did. So I cut the first chapter in half. Then I stuck the two halves back together again. Then I split it again. After a lot of experimentation and fiddling I settled on a length of about 3,000-4,000 words per chapter, and I’ve kept that length for my next book as well. (I went through the same process of splicing and dicing, and came back to that same length. I think I’ll probably stick with that length in future books as well and save myself the trouble of trying things out.)

I try to maintain a balance with my chapters. I don’t stick rigidly to a word count, but I allow the length of the chapter to dictate the pace of the scene. If I’m 3,000 words in and I haven’t quite gotten to the point I wanted to make, I’ll go back and look at the scene(s) and try to decide if they warrant being their own chapter. If they don’t, I question why the scenes are in the story, and if they’re distracting me from the thread of the story, and I try to cut them down or delete them. If they do, I’ll expand them into their own thing and push the original point into the next chapter. If my chapter is running to 5,000 words I’ll do something similar. So far I’ve managed to maintain the right kind of pace (I think).

And that’s it for chapter 2! I hope you’re enjoying these thoughts about my writing process. Do add your email address and subscribe if you’d like to be updated when these and other articles come out. And if you’ve not read ‘Out of the Smoke’ yet, consider picking it up from your local bookshop. If they don’t have it in stock they’ll be able to order it for you.

Header illustration copyright Jaime Dill, 2020

2 thoughts on “A life of grime

Add yours

  1. I remember as a child enjoying reading the bit near the beginning of the “Water Babies” where Tom gets lost in the flues and comes out in Ellie’s bedroom. I loved that book although I don’t think I actually understood what it is about!

    1. I actually doubted myself for a minute when I had finished the book, and thought I had imagined the whole thing! I had to do another round of desperate research to convince myself that yes, it’s a real thing. It is a kind of Narnia-esque idea (though much more grim and dangerous!) that you enter this separate world for a short time, and emerge somewhere else. Of course, in Out of the Smoke Billy emerges changed from the flues at the very end. Not to read too much into it! But it did end up working nicely. I don’t feel like I can take much credit for it though …

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