In my last blog post I mentioned that at long last I have embarked upon writing a book. I am, of course, an actor and not an author but for many years I have felt there is definitely a book in me, if only I could think of a subject. As far as fiction is concerned my problem was that I couldn’t think of a plot. Or a scenario. Or an era. Or any characters. So, that didn’t seem to be a fertile furrow to plough and anyway, as I have often said in Q&A sessions over the years, I could write the greatest novel of the twenty first century and not even come close to what Charles Dickens achieved. Anything I created would be harshly judged and wouldn’t sell.
Fiction was out.
The next genre I thought about was a children’s book, the market is huge, but so also is the available product – there are thousands of books for children out there, and certainly if yours could become a classic there is a never ending revenue stream from merchandising, theatre adaptation rights and television, just look at the success of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, or Room on the Broom, or The Tiger Who Came to Tea, or How to Hide a Lion etc etc. And there is the problem: those etcs… there are plenty of ‘classics’ and it is a difficult market to break into. Like acting, only the very few rise to the top.
Also those choices sound terribly mercenary and although a new income source would be most welcome, I would much prefer to write about something that I am knowledgeable about, something that I want to discover more about and something that hasn’t been done before.
The answer (as you know) has come to me gradually over the last year or so, as I have become more and more interested in the circumstances surrounding the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865. The process started when I found the official Board of Trade Report into the crash and discovered so much more information than has been published before. In most of the Charles Dickens biographies the event is passed over in a few sentences, with the emphasis being on Dickens’ travelling companions, Ellen Ternan and her mother, but the report goes into detail of the track repairs, the timings of the day, the nature of the locomotive and much more.
And I decided that this will be my book, not so much a biography of Charles Dickens but more a biography of a single day: June 9th 1865, starting at 7am in Paris.
I opened a new document and stared at the bright white screen completely unable to think of a single word to write! Charles’ books have brilliant opening lines, should I aspire to that, to pull the reader in? I tried a few and nothing worked.
Suddenly it came to me that I didn’t need to start at the beginning, but that I should start with what I already knew: the scene of the crash itself.
Even if the words I wrote do not end up in the final product at least I was doing something and as the word count increased so I was able to expanded the story to include each stage of the journey (ie, Paris, Boulogne, Folkestone). I began to discover more information (for instance in a letter written in 1847 from Paris Dickens commented that he had seen a theatrical production entitled ‘The French Revolution and how strong and dramatic the scenes of the uprising were, this a full eleven years before he published A Tale of Two Cities). Although not directly related to the crash each of these titbits go towards creating a vivid picture of Charles in each of the scenes. I emailed various experts in rail history and cross channel ferry history, and as well as giving me valuable information and time they also recommended books which I duly purchased and which gave me yet more detail.
I scoured the letters of Dickens for mentions of any of the scenes I was describing, all to build a picture of Dickens as he was on that day.
I am an early riser and most of my writing is done in the morning before the household awakes and the kitchen table is covered with various books each of which guide me in a certain direction, a new avenue to follow.
One of my most remarkable discoveries so far was the official entries on the register of death of the victims of the accident, and suddenly this story was for them, the forgotten ten whose very existence has been covered up by the coincidental presence of a celebrity on the same train as them.
Apart from the ‘biography of the day’ which will form the bulk of the book, I will also include chapters about Charles Dickens and how he was perceived in 1865, as well as one about the relationship between Dickens and Ellen and what had taken them to Paris during that year. I also want to investigate the aftermath of the crash and the effect it had on Dickens. It has been suggested that he showed signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I am keen to talk to experts in that field also.
I’d better not say too much more, otherwise in the nature of Arthur Slugworth, Mr. Fickelgruber and Mr. Prodnose one of you may steal my lovingly collated research as those underhand individuals stole Willy Wonka’s confectionary secrets!
My work and my research continues, but the next job has to be to find a publisher. I could self publish of course, but hopefully someone in the industry will see the attractiveness of a book about Dickens by a Dickens. I am currently emailing various publishers who specialise in rail history, but will start to extend the search and cast a wider web, and if anyone has any contacts…..