Before moving on from Ripon I would like to mention one exhibit in the Prison & Police Museum that brought home to me the cruelty of the era that my historical stories are set. I found a man-trap displayed on the wall. I have mentioned them in my work, but it is only when you see the ugly things close up that you realise how being caught in such a sprung trap could maim and kill, in what was a slow and excruciatingly painful way.
They were hidden in undergrowth to catch or deter poachers or trespassers. They had a spring mechanism that meant the metal jaws (many had teeth – serrated edges to really lame the culprit). However, the sentences for poachers were also severe and included hanging or transportation. Although they were a fact of life in the early nineteenth century, and had been for some time, fortunately they were banned from England C.1830. Nonetheless some must have stumbled upon them by chance and others by necessity of crossing private land…
Thomas closed his eyes fleetingly. “Yes, we will,” he spoke the words after a few moments of silence.
“We’ll what, Didy?”
“Find Levi; he didn’t disclose us – we should help him too.”
His hand, still holding the bottle, dropped down, but his senses awoke as the clang of an iron mantrap snapped viciously shut next to him. His face paled as he looked down horrified at the sight of meshed metal teeth that greeted him. Phoebe had screamed as the great jagged jaws of the mantrap had snapped shut as Thomas lowered his arm, triggering the edge of mechanism, but fortunately his limb had not fallen within its evil grip; instead the bottle was smashed.
She was gamely running along a path ignoring Betsy’s pleas for her to come back to her, when an arm reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her backwards. She landed in a pool of mud and foliage.
“How dare you…you great bully!” Hannah shouted out in indignation at the figure who stood openly laughing at her dishevelled state, whilst boldly standing in front of her. Her ribbon had come loose and her hair started to fall down onto her shoulders. Her anger rose and she was about to vent her opinion at the lad, who must have only been a few years her senior, but he spoke to her first.
“You stupid little spoilt brat! Look what you nearly ran into!” He threw a stick at the ground in front of where she had been heading and, instantly, the metal jaws of a man-trap snapped shut, tearing it in two.
Hannah’s mouth dropped open. She wanted to cry out, but was too scared and confused. Betsy ran up behind her, panting heavily. She slapped the girl hard on her shoulder. Hannah fought hard to hold back her tears. This was not the kind of adventure she had envisaged. The lad looked nervously around him as her father’s voice bellowed to them through the woods, “What is the meaning of this?”
Featured image / RN
One of my fondest memories of growing up in the coastal town of Redcar was walking along the promenade with my father and seeing the flat-bottomed fishing boats being pulled up onto the beach after they crashed through the breakers on the shore-line.
People went down to meet them on the fine sand of the beach to see what they had to sell of their catch. I would eagerly peer inside. Fresh fish meant just that: mackerel, cod or crab to name but a few, depending on the season.
Sadly, this scene is no longer common. The boats that once lined the promenade are few. All along the bay towns of the northeast coast, the fishing industry has diminished.
In Phoebe’s Challenge, she instantly looks upon the distant boats and the sweeping bay as a scene of beauty when she sees the bay open up before her for the very first time. This story is based on a village I call Ebton, which has striking resemblances to Saltburn.
In my previous blog post on Cobles and Contraband, I talked about the versatility of the cobles (often called cobbles locally) and their use in smuggling at the turn of the nineteenth century. When the sea wall was being built at the end of the eighteenth century many men were housed in the small towns of Coatham and Redcar. They supplemented their income, like the local people, by working in gangs to bring contraband ashore from the colliers and luggers that would hover illegally off the coast. They would then distribute it before the beleaguered customs service could catch them. They would have been vastly outnumbered anyway.
One historic boat, which does still have pride of place in its own museum, is the Zetland Lifeboat.
In October 1802 this oldest surviving lifeboat in the world arrived at the small coastal town of Redcar in North Yorkshire. In its time it has been used to save over 500 lives and the service that began with it has continued to work in the exceptionally dangerous conditions of rescues in the North Sea. Grace Darling was an exceptionally brave lady who risked her own life to save others. The RNLI continues to save lives. These days their boats do not need pulling down to the edge of the water, but they face the same dangerous, treacherous seas as their forefathers.
One of the most difficult issues a new writer faces is to know where they should begin their story. Creative writing books often advise that a story, whatever its length and genre, should begin at a point where something is happening. Ideally the protagonist, your main character, is facing the essence of drama – a conflict. I agree, but what is essential is that the reader should begin to establish a relationship with that character so that they want to read on to follow them on their journey through the story, to what will hopefully be a satisfying ending.
The initial conflict provides a situation, which brings out aspects of their character that should appeal to the reader as they face their dilemma. The background to these is the place – the setting. This will help set the era, the physical aspects – the stage – against which the characters are performing on the page.
A common mistake is to open with too much explanation about their character’s life before the current situation. This means the reader may become bored before they understand who the protagonist is and become interested in them as a person who they can relate to.
Every writer will be inspired differently by people, places and plot to create that spark, which drives them to convert an initial idea into the first gripping page of a novel.
Phoebe’s Challenge: Phoebe is a young woman who works in a mill with her younger brother, Thomas. The idea for the opening was triggered by an illustration in a children’s book written about the hardship of life in cotton mills at the turn of the nineteenth century. I then created the evil overseer Benjamin Bladderwell as the main reason why it became imperative that Phoebe escapes. I liked the idea that the plot would become more complex if a mysterious stranger helped them. Without giving any spoilers away, this then broadened the whole plot out into the world of smuggling around the bay towns of North Yorkshire, England. A time when we were at war with France. From here Phoebe and Thomas’s adventure involves more conflict amongst the different social classes and a life and death chase with a man who they do not know if they can trust. Over the pace of the adventure another thread is layered, that of the developing romance.
From one initial idea, others spark until what is created is a tightly written romance or mystery to be enjoyed. Wherever my initial idea comes from for a story, I always aim to take my readers on an adventure which will end at an optimistic point, where the main character has overcome problems and survived.
I am always fascinated to hear how other writers work, published or not. What inspires you to write? Where have your best ideas come from?