When Libby Day was 9 years old she witnessed the slaughtering of her mother and 2 sisters. Or at least she hid in a cupboard whilst they were killed. The main suspect for the murder was Ben her older brother and it’s Libby’s testimony that sees him sentenced to life in prison.

 ‘Dark Places’ tells 2 stories: Libby Day, now thirty something, discovering what really happened the night her family were murdered, and the actual events of that night told from the perspective of Libby’s mother, Patty, and her brother.

 Libby’s chapters are separated by chapters set the day of murder – these then alternate between Patty and Ben’s perspectives.

 Flynn skilfully weaves the different threads into a well paced and twisting narrative that’s very satisfying. She’s got the page turning mechanics down to a fine art. The chapters articulate with absolute control so that the 2 time zones inform each other. Questions raised in the present timeline are resolved in the past and visa versa. Furthermore tension is developed without characters ever having to behave unnaturally – no characters leave a room enigmatically so they don’t have to answer important questions.

 I’ll have to admit to not entirely buying into the final big twist – that Flynn hadn’t led me to the point at which the character concerned would make the decision they do. That said it was by no means an unreasonable stretch. It’s still a great book and well worth seeking out.

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The novel uses three different narrative timelines. The first chapter describes the novel’s present, the second describes about 6 months earlier, and the third describes an incident from the protagonist’s childhood (the night of the house fire in which his grandfather dies). The next chapter goes back to the present and the cycle repeats throughout the novel. There are some great American shows at the moment that use similar techniques to great effect, Lost is one that springs to mind. 

 I’m writing the second chapter and so am grappling with the interplay between the three timelines. Each timeline will inform events in the others – generally questions and ideas raised in one timeline will be answered or at least furthered. For example, in the first chapter the protagonist fakes a break-in to the mansion-house; in the second chapter (set 6 months earlier) we are given a snippet of information about why he faked the break-in. It has to be just enough to prevent confusion but raise a few more questions.

 Making sure the timelines fit together feels like playing an intricate Chinese puzzle. Sometimes it feels more like playing Kerplunk – as you mess around with one thread you’ve constantly got your eye on how the rest of the thing will be affected. I had better end this analogy here before I start writing about marbles dropping.

 Stephen King talks about the ‘boys in the basement’ as that part of your sub conscious where stories develop beyond your awareness. I have always been a believer in this description of the creative process. It amazes me how seemingly disparate things suddenly come together, seemingly incidental details from one thread suddenly become vital reference points for an earlier thread – like those boys had it in mind all along.

 I’m not one for having conversations with my characters like some writers talk about. Certainly lines of theirs will come to me and these lines may then develop into exchanges between characters. I reckon it’s just more of the boys’ work behind the scenes

fun with plotting

November 22, 2009

 I love the way this book is keeping me guessing.  For example, whilst mapping out the plot in the last few months it has changed almost completely from the initial idea. Initially the book was about the protagonist, Taylor, visiting Caspinal house to value the estate and then discovering a book of confessional poetry written by Nathaniel Caspinal, when he was young, that would later reveal the ‘dark secrets of the Caspinal family’. This idea was entitled ‘The Rhythmical Workings of Nathaniel Caspinal’. My principal concern with this initial plot outline was the protagonist’s lack of motive for wanting to discover the ‘dark secrets’; he had nothing really at stake. Essentially, he was exploring the Caspinal family secrets to simply satisfy his curiosity. 

 In response to this problem I created Taylor’s grandfather. The Caspinal family, specifically Wainwright, were to have wronged Taylor’s grandfather in some way. Taylor attempting to redress this injustice thereby had an ulterior motive for exploring the Caspinal family and collection. To raise the stakes further I escalated this injustice to suspicion of Wainwright having murdered the grandfather. However, this addition that was simply to provide greater motivation for the protagonist had a massive impact on the entire plot and brought about dramatic changes. Firstly, it drew a greater focus on Wainwright Caspinal. And secondly, it foregrounded the collection because the story became more about getting to know Wainwright and it is through the collection that we come to understand him.

I now had two similar devices through which we got to know characters – Nathaniel’s book of poems and Wainwright’s collection. As Wainwright took greater prominence in the story finding out about Nathaniel through the poetry book became a redundant plot-line. Additionally, the collection as a topography of Wainwright’s mind just seemed like such a more interesting idea. The discovery of a poetry book was also a little too reminiscent of A S Byatt’s ‘Possession’. As a result of these changes the poetry book is no longer part of the story and the story itself is now entitled ‘The Curious Collection of Wainwright Caspinal’.

 And before I know it, Taylor is staging a break-in to Caspinal house so that he can get a longer look at the collection, but more about that in the next instalment.

Hello everbody

October 24, 2009

I have recently started to write a novel currently titled ‘The Curious Collection of Wainwright Caspinal’.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an opportunity for me to reflect on the process of writing this novel and to make contact with other people doing similar things.

Here’s a brief outline of the story as it currently stands:

The discovery of a strange and unique artefact leads John Taylor, a specialist in such things, to Caspinal house and the mythical Caspinal collection. Taylor hopes to find the answer to who started a fire, when he was young, that killed his grandfather and nearly killed him. An obsessive collector, Wainwright Caspinal tried to understand humanity by amassing what it produced and consumed at its furthest fringes; the collection represents a topography of the dark edges of the human psyche. But Caspinal house is now home to the reclusive Nathaniel Caspinal, Wainwright’s oldest son, and all he wants is to be left alone and keep his secrets hidden.

This now leads into the first problem that I’m having. Publishers are keen to know what other successful novels yours is like, and at the moment I haven’t found one that fits comfortably with mine. I’m currently pitching it as similar to Iain Banks’ Complicity with which it shares some similar narrative devices and stylistic features, but loosely, and besides Complicity was written about 16 years ago. I have a stack of other books to read that could also be possible candidates, next on the list is Peter Carey’s Theft: a love story

What I’m not saying is my idea is totally original and there’s nothing else out there like it – God no. This would be terrible, what I’m worried about is that there aren’t any successful contemporary novels like this out there – maybe novels like this aren’t successful or even being published.

Anyway if there’s anything in the above blurb that reminds you of something you read recently then I’d love to know.