I’m reading Whirligig and boy am I enjoying it. That will sound very conceited given it’s my own novel. It’s not like I can be surprised by the twists and turns, the rising tension, the character progression. ‘Whoa! I didn’t see that coming.’ The story is my own invention as are most of the people. Even the ones I’ve borrowed from history are my own take. So why is it such a pleasure?
First up, I should say there is a purpose to this; it’s not pure self-indulgence. I’m about to start writing the final book in the trilogy (working title Tigers in Blue) so the idea is to read Whirligig and The Copper Road back to back so that I’m fully across all the characters’ story arcs. All characters, whether major or minor need their own arc. It was the biggest lesson I learned from Patrick LoBrutto, my editor for The Copper Road. Arcs can’t end early or part way through the novel (unless the character does). He quickly exposed which characters I’d left hanging. Under his guidance, this was a pleasure to put right and vastly improved the book, but this time around I want to have a good idea of all the arcs before I start. I might not know the detail, but if I have an idea where a character is going emotionally, I’ll find the circumstances and the history that will fit. The problem is I’m so into reading the book that I’ve yet to make any notes.
So why is it such a delight for me? There are some deeper reasons which I’ll go into, but I guess the first thing is I’m proud of it. I put years into Whirligig, completed a Master’s Degree to improve my writing skills and put it through seven drafts. It was even shortlisted for a few awards. I like it. I like the cover, I like the name, I like having the solid book in my hand. I wish the font was one size bigger.
But that isn’t enough to explain the satisfaction I get chapter by chapter and with a permanent smile on my face. The best way I can explain it is the feeling you might get when you find an old photo album, maybe one with pictures you’d forgotten you had. I wanted Whirligig to be rich in settings so I went to a lot of places to underpin the descriptions. So almost every chapter triggers powerful memories for me.
I travelled to Woburn Abbey, my fictitious Ridgmont, where my father worked the farm as a boy as does my lead character, Shire. There’s a porcelain cup that Matlock has stolen, ‘soft paste porcelain with gilt flying birds on blue lapis.’ He believes it confers some lost status. It’s from the collection I perused in Woburn’s cellars. There was a power cut while I was there and some long dark seconds alone until the generator kicked in. Woburn’s halls, portraits, grand staircases, the view of the grounds are all there in Whirligig.
Shire sails to America on the Scotia, a ship I discovered in the archives of the Liverpool Maritime Museum, which is where I also discovered the banker, politician and blockade runner George Trenholm and the subterfuge of how his offices in Liverpool were used to buy Confederate ships and arms. The descriptions of the Scotia as Shire sails away from Ireland are from a day spent on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth: ‘these climbing nets, narrowing black webs reaching for the safety of the platforms.’
Then there are favourite chapters, ones where I made pass after pass to try and improve them. Shire’s first army scene on the parade ground. No visit possible, there being little more than a historical marker for Camp Cleveland, but I spent hours and hours learning the army drill of the time and enjoyed introducing the characters in Shire’s squad through the scene. Later he boards a paddle-steamer in Cincinnati. He sits down on the cold wooden floor with his back to the balusters and is instantly uncomfortable; the description as the boat pulls away from the shore, ‘they moved off into the current as if powered by a pair of waterfalls.’; The heron who flies so close to the water that Shire expects to see lines drawn by the wingtips, the snapping turtles hauled up on the muddy shore, the red thistle mouths of the steam-stacks; all these were from my own day sailing on the General Jackson in Nashville.
Finally, there are the remembered moments of revelation or recognition, moments where you realise how the history and your imagination are coming together. It’s a powerful experience. You recall them like a first kiss, a proposal, a melody from a funeral that forever squeezes your heart. Standing in the low ceiling basement of the Carter House in Franklin where the 125th will come full circle and realising the full scope of the trilogy I would write. Looking across the preserved battlefield of Chickamauga at a sweeping summer view for the very first time and matching it to an impossible memory born of writing before you ever came here. Smiling like a love-struck fool.
Sometimes the scene, sometimes the line, sometimes a word. It's hard to convey. It is hugely self-indulgent. It’s been intense to write this post. I hope you can feel that. That’s what this pleasure is; the remembered joy of writing.