A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a radio producer who I'd sent some work to - the same producer who commissioned Kellie Jackson's story last year, which Kellie guest-blogged about here. This producer is commissioning a series of three stories from writers new to radio, and would I be interested in writing one of them? As so often, the timing was quite tight, with the recording due at the end of June, for transmission in early August. And as it's part of a set of three the location and theme were set. We talked on the phone: was I interested? It was Wednesday: perhaps I could have a think over the weekend about what I might like to write, and we could meet on the Monday and discuss it.
Interested? I was thrilled. But not so thrilled that I forgot to check that by the end of that meeting I'd know whether the story was commissioned or not, before I did the Provisionally Happy Author Dance round the kitchen. One of the realities of the professional writing life is that you often can't afford to take work on spec, even in pursuit of something which will pay, if it means putting paid work on hold, or under so much pressure you do it badly. Indeed, you have to think quite hard about how much work you're prepared to put in at all, before you know the contract's on its way: even the petrol and subsistence for a research trip is money coming straight out of your existing income. However, the answer was yes, she wouldn't dream of asking me to write the story on spec. Then I did the Definitely Happy Author Dance.
On Saturday the sun came out, and the writing work I needed to do to clear the decks for the story, wasn't compatible with domestic things which needed doing anyway. But research was. So I drove down to Brighton, where the story had to be set.So: how do you find a story, from nothing, with only a theme and a length (13½ minutes, which is about 2000 words) to go on? It was the hottest, sunniest shopping day so far this year. The shops and streets were heaving, you could barely have got a squashed ice-cream cone between the grilling bodies on the shingle, and anyone who wasn't either shopping or grilling or drumming or big-dipper-ing on the Pier was sitting in the Lanes, under a sunshade, eating garlicky, buttery fish and drinking Sauvignon Blanc. I looked wistfully at the latter as I squeezed past, but I'd had to come by car, and besides, no one was paying my expenses except me.
If writing fiction is about synthesising documentary and imagination, documentary was what I was there for. And the life all round me would have been easy meat for a satirist, or a sociologist, but I'm neither. Even worse, it wasn't an easy world in which to hear or see the past; the sun drove its way into every cranny, and the older and more overtly historical the building, the more likely it was to have been turned into a Goth pub, or a super-cooled arts venue, all steel wire and glass. It didn't have to be a historical story, of course, but I'm not very good at doing anything that doesn't have at least one foot in the past. On the other hand, although the Pavilion pops out at you from all sorts of surprising angles, I did want to resist the delightful, and delightfully easy, option of setting it in Regency Brighton.
So I decided not think, but only to feel and see. I didn't try looking for anything particular, just listened for the still small voice inside me that wanted to go this way or that. And I didn't ask myself why I fancied one building, or vista, or notice, more than another: I just hoovered up whatever seemed to breathe the past, or the big bones of the place. Because one of the paths through the yellow wood I didn't take is photography, I'm slightly obsessed with things like parallax, colour, the different abstracts shapes made by buildings, engineering, nature. But I wasn't thinking in pictures, so I took lots of carelessly-framed photographs by way of notes and made more notes by hand. And when my back began to ache I holed up in a delightfully studently café, with coffee and the best ginger cake I've had in a long time, and did some freewriting and clustering. Then I went wandering again.
The old heart of Brighton isn't actually very big. I probably covered every street at least once and mostly twice, but my coffee and cake worked like the middle section in a da capo aria: the second time I had my mental ear - it is a story for radio, after all - sharpened by the different tunes I'd been thinking. An idea began to form, and by the time I was half-way back up the A23 to London, I knew what at least one possible story would be made of.
But the rest of what happened and is happening with this commission will have to wait. Indeed, you'll have to wait till early August for the story itself, and I'll not be giving away anything about what's in it. But, meanwhile, I am planning to blog intermittently about the process: writing the story, having it edited, going to the recording session, and so on. So, as they say, tune in next week, and meanwhile here's a picture which is nothing to do with the story, but which I suspect you could only take in Brighton. The combination of the building, the decor and the sign on the sandwich board in the bottom right hand corner, made me laugh.
and just in case you can't read the sandwich board, here it is: