My radio story and other - er - stories...
How a subordinate adverbial clause of purpose might just help you to sing

Writing for radio 7: how I wrote 'Calling'

Now that 'Calling' has been broadcast, and the flurry of flattering Facebook comments and tweets and emails had died down, I meant to do one last post in this Writing for Radio series: how it feels to have your story read on the radio. But then a friend who writes magazine fiction for a living started a discussion of where stories come from, and I realised that actually I haven't been able to talk properly about where 'Calling' came from, because it would have given away the story. So this post is one big plot spoiler, and if you'd like to listen to the story before you read the rest of it, you can go here, and Listen Again (till Wed 11th Aug). I'll do that other last post in a few days.

The commission gave me the following:

  • Brighton setting
  • 'Lost in the Lanes' theme
  • 13½ minutes: 2,200 words

When I went down to Brighton to research I knew that it would probably be historical in some sense just because, try as I will, it so often is. I was also aware that while I wanted to find a story I could get excited about, to some extent it would be a calling card for me and my writing, so perhaps it wasn't the moment to try my hand at a futuristic techno-thriller. But I didn't know more than that. So, as I described here, I decided not to decide, but just to wander and look and soak things up. When my back began to ache I sat in a café and did some clusters on 'Lost' and 'Lanes' (you can click for a bigger image if you want to play word-spotting). DSC_0008 It's full of things which didn't go anywhere - I was wondering about smuggling and perhaps an 18th century, pre-Regent world when Brighthelmstone was a fishing village at the foot of the cliff. But none of that went anywhere.

I'm interested to realise, though, that I can't actually remember how I found what I found. I do know that by then I'd found the following things:

  • the Volks Electric Railway opened in 1892
  • it runs straight along the shore
  • the Lanes are on a slope
  • you can see the sea at the end of most of the streets which slope downwards
  • a flat sea on a bright day looks dark and smooth and solid
  • the grander terraces are white and have curved fronts like billows
  • the humbler houses are muddly and darker and mixed in with businesses.

And I see that, while still in the café, on the page after those clusters I wrote:

Railway - at ½ way station the two drivers get out, see how much space have for getters-on - exchange glances - get back on + continue. Much of an age - couple? 20ish boy looks as if he likes girl - can't tell about her

Lost in the Lanes - because they're higgledy piggledy - salvation in driving the train - straight, intermittently friendly - passing train. Not open-ended. Can always see the sea - toing and froing - opposite of sparrow in the Lord's Hall

In the lanes - mother gets lost? he gets lost?? - looking for her?

1892 train - he's quite old

So by then various things were evolving (or shaking themselves out):

  • the story was going to have mortality and the fragility of life underlying it
  • my observation of the drivers didn't go anywhere directly but the physical shape of the railway could have emotional significance;
  • the contrast between the muddle of the lanes and the comforting parallels shore/trainline/sea;
  • the hardness of the sea - it was very tidy-looking and calm that day - but its dark implacability, hence 'flinty'
  • I'd taken a usual idea ('lost child') from my cluster and done my automatic thing of standing it on its head, to see if it's more interesting that way up;
  • moved from there to the emotionally damaged mother, and wondering what had caused that damage (from which soon came the sea taking her husband/Tom's father)
  • realised that the strong sense I had of it being a man telling a story of 'before', taken with the date of the train being opened, defined the period, which meant clothes, manners, mores, and roughly what year he was telling his story in.

By the time I was halfway home, the story was more or less there. It hung around in my head for a week, while I worked out the dates and ages, and when I sat down to write it, it pretty much fell out of my pen.

And fundamentally, it stayed that way. The only trickiness was that the climax of change was the moment when the train appears and offers Tom a way to cope with his damaged past, and so gives him a future. I orginally ended the story there, but that isn't in the Lanes physically, and it meant that the emotional resolution wasn't either. Indeed, the only major editorial suggestion was that the story did need to curl back to the Lanes at the end. Which turned out to be a very good idea; in the little vignette of his life since then, the listener understands how in his changed state, thanks to the train, Tom can make even the alien land of the Lanes into his familiar and un-frightening home.