Perils of Multitasking, Part Two.
Last time, I was complaining that I don’t seem to be able to do the first draft of one project while brainstorming or editing another. This may be because my mind doesn’t easily hold two stories at the same time, or it may be because I’m just lazy and once I’ve put in the hours of writing necessary on the first draft, I don’t feel obliged to do anything on the other project. Out of those two possibilities, it’s hard to tell which one is the real reason. Maybe it’s both?
However I do have a concrete example of what happens if I try to write the first draft of one project while researching for another. That would be what happened while I was writing Under the Hill.
As is typical of me, I first planned UtH as a novella. It was going to be a little palate cleanser between Shining in the Sun and the next big historical I intended to write – a simple little story which I didn’t have to concentrate on too hard. It would be a modern, gay version of Tam Lin, set in an area I know well from where I grew up, thus requiring very little research and not much plotting, and freeing my mind to work on the bigger novel I meant to do next.
That bigger novel was going to be called Whirlwind Boys – a 100,000 word gay historical set in World War Two, in which careful grammar-school boy Danny, enrolled in the RAF as a navigator, fell for reckless bad-boy Michael, the pilot of his Lanc. They were going to be shot down over Holland and have various adventures with the Dutch resistence while having an epic journey home.
The trouble was that as I wrote Under the Hill, I fell in love with it. I loved the characters. I didn’t want Ben and Chris to have such a short adventure together. I hadn’t expected to find the way they sniped at each other so charming. I hadn’t realised that Chris’ air of haunted mystery would make me want to poke at it with a stick to find out what was underneath.
At the same time, I hadn’t expected to be so utterly blown away by the romance (in the old sense) of the Lancaster bomber – the cameraderie of the crews, the quiet, terrified, stiff-upper-lip heroism of facing death night after night for your country and then coming home to find out your government is ashamed of you.
So, on the one hand I was in love with Chris and on the other hand I was in love with these quiet and dogged heroes and I had only the rather inadequate filters of my own imagination to keep them apart. Naturally both loves began to bleed together. Wouldn’t it be fantastic, I thought, if Chris was a bomber pilot? That would explain why he was so weird and old fashioned. He didn’t seem like a guy out of his time, he really was a guy out of his time. And that would fit with the theme Under the Hill seemed to have developed while I wasn’t paying attention – the theme of having lost one’s whole world, of trying to find yourself when everything that once defined you is gone.
But the idea of a pilot being in love with his navigator was a persistent one. That was the emotional core of the WWII book, the reason I wanted to write it. And it was left hanging about, seriously injured now that Chris had taken over about 90% of Michael. It was kind of inevitable that Danny should also make his way into Under the Hill. Because he didn’t have to be grafted on to an existing character, he could come in wholesale, though under a changed name, and become Geoff, Chris’ long-lost wartime sweetheart.
Once that had happened, it was like a bolt of lightning striking the mad scientist’s laboratory and fizzing down the copper conductors. Under the Hill lived! It LIVED, I TELL YOU!!!! HAHAHAHAHAA!!!
But Whirlwind Boys died on the table, with all its parts cut out and stitched into the monster Fantasy. I don’t think I will ever write it now the spark of life that once animated it has gone somewhere else. And although Under the Hill is immensely better for it, I’m not sure that it’s an
abomination experiment I ought to repeat.