A work in progress…

My second novel is already in progress… here are the first couple of paragraphs to whet your appetite…!

Chapter 1: Where to from here?

   At first light the following morning, Alex set off for the path that he knew would take him through the woods to the top of the South Downs.  Dressed in his everyday farm clothes, he walked at a steady pace, looking all around as he made his way along the well-trodden path.  It was cold and the air was clear.  Overnight there had been a heavy frost and the grass glowed white in the early morning light.

    Yesterday had turned out to be a disaster.  As he walked, Alex ran the events of the previous day back through his mind.  He knew that there would be others out early this morning; looking for their friends.  Last evening, as the shooting had started, and it became clear that the German troops were in the woods, the men of the Resistance had fallen back in as orderly a manner as they could.  There was confusion throughout the evening and it was difficult to work out what was going on.  By midnight, most of the men had made it back to the village and to the outlying farms and hamlets.  Some reported that they had seen German troops coming out from the woods, and others said that troop trucks had been seen making their way back to the German barracks on the South side of Watersham.  But it wasn’t clear what had happened.  What was clear though, was that the German troops had been hunting in the woods until late evening.  Dogs had been heard barking and scores of shots had echoed through the woods for a long time.  The Resistance exercise that was due to start in the woods during the previous afternoon had broken up before most of the men had reached the designated meeting place.  It had always been standing practice for the men of the Resistance to melt away as quickly as possible if ever meeting places were discovered.  As soon as individuals heard the dogs barking and shots being fired; they followed orders, turned around and made their way back home as quickly as they could.  In some cases, this took a long time, as the whole area was swarming with German soldiers.  Alex himself had to hide in a thicket on the edge of the woods until all was quiet and then make a wide and diversion on his way back to the family farm.  He didn’t get in until midnight and lay awake for most of the night wondering who the German soldiers had been shooting at.  He feared the worst.

    His plan that morning was to follow the main path from the farm, up through the woods to the old drovers’ trail and on to the top of the Downs.  He had made a point of dressing in his usual work clothes and had packed some lunch and a bottle of tea into a knapsack that he hitched over his shoulder.  His family ran a small flock of sheep on the rough pastures further along the Downs; and so, if spotted by the Germans, it would appear that he was a local farmers’ boy, just going about his daily work of checking on the sheep.  Yesterday had been different.  Yesterday, he had walked along the same path carrying a machine gun and a bag full of ammunition.  His clothes were different then too; like most of the men in the Resistance, he wore a khaki shirt, an old greenish brown jacket with leather patches on the elbows, dark trousers and heavy laced up walking boots.  It wasn’t quite a uniform; but it was the best that he and the rest of the men could do.  When they were all together; you could tell that they were some sort of paramilitary outfit; not just a ragtag group of rebels.

Keep an eye on the AuthorJohnHall Facebook page for updates on when the sequel to Under the Yew Tree is available.

The question of a sequel…

About half way through writing Under the Yew Tree, I realised that there was another part of the story that needed telling about the residents and surroundings of Watersham, and so even at that early stage, I was thinking about the sequel.

With that initial realisation in mind, Ash before Oak is progressing faster than Under the Yew Tree did. The first novel set the ball in motion and ignited my interest in developing some of the other characters and fired my imagination to research other aspects of the Second World War and what could have been, had we fallen under German occupation.

The challenge now, of course is finding the time to sit and write Ash before Oak!  I’m not the kind of writer to set myself time slots for writing. I need to get into the frame of mind of the story; imagine myself as a character; hear the sounds, smell the scents, feel the grass or path beneath my feet, feel the emotion of the situation…

My aim is, however, to finish the sequel this year, so the clock is ticking!

Here’s a sneak preview of the first page.

Wherefore art thou, Inspiration?

The question every author is asked, about every book they write: What inspired you? Where did you get your inspiration…?

Having penned my first novel, I know this is not such an easy question to answer. Few real-life incidents warrant an entire story or novel; most are mundane eventualities best forgotten! But if you start collecting them; noting them down, taking a photograph, recording noises, voices, programmers… they grow in substance.

My first thought about writing a novel was as long ago as 2009 but I’m still not sure what or why it happened. I have no idea what triggered it, but I woke one morning with an entire outline of a story in my head. It was so vivid in my mind that I jumped out of bed and wrote down the chapter headings so I didn’t ‘lose the plot’ – literally!

Writing it down enabled me to keep the thoughts together until I was ready to write. Honestly, until the day I published, the actual bare bones of the story didn’t change. But there was a curious development.

I thought my story was about the French resistance – it followed the same plot, but in my mind, it was set in France, not England. I was thinking about the French Resistance, yet something didn’t feel right. Until it clicked and I realised the story was about the English resistance. Then I thought of my father, some of the stories he told me, plus others I had heard and the whole thing flowed…

I know my father was in the Home Guard during World War II, during which he carried out night patrols. But why did he have a machine gun under the bed?! Was it really that bad?! I started my research and discovered how close this country actually was to an invasion – with Churchill’s ‘hidden army’ – and that set my imagination on fire!

So, I put my mind to it and started putting meat on the bones of my story, which I steadily padded out over the years, whenever I read, heard or saw something that might fit. I researched areas that interested me; collecting ideas, notes, images. We know a great deal about the French Resistance; the Spanish and the Italian, but what would we have done here in Britain? How would we have coped and defended our little island?

I imagined landscapes and countryside that I knew so well from childhood and once I imagined I was in the locations, I could feel the presence through my senses; hear the sound of the twig snap; smell the damp earth in the yew forest; feel the cool spring air… the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together, and the story wrote itself, as they say!

So, Under the Yew Tree was born. But there is more to come! The research continues; my creative juices are flowing and Ash before Oak is in progress…

The potential for drowning in the wave of research

Following on from my previous post, another area which seems to fascinate people is how I approach researching different aspects of World War II for Under the Yew Tree and the sequel, Oak Before Ash.

I’ve always had a fascination for ancestry and I am proud that my grandparents and great grandparents ‘worked the land’ in Hampshire and West Sussex.  I also harbour a life-long interest in the Second World War – especially in the regional importance West Sussex had during this period. This interest was possibly ignited by my father’s stories about being in the Home Guard and when he  was on the ‘night watch’ he apparently kept a machine gun under his bed! A far cry from the innocence of Dad’s Army, as I’ve researched more for Under the Yew Tree, I’ve often wondered if my father was in more than just the Home Guard…

For both Under the Yew Tree and, now, for Oak Before Ash, I’ve read numerous books and articles on WWII; the politics, the economics; the communities. My bookshelves are groaning under the weight! With Oak Before Ash, in particular, I’m researching and learning more about how the French Resistance operated in France – and from Tangmere in West Sussex, as well as Churchill’s ‘Secret Army’ which many don’t know about, even now. What strikes me more than anything in my research, is how advanced we were in technology and espionage at the time and also, how horribly close we were to German Occupation.

It is very easy to drown in research and be distracted; especially when the subject is so inspiring for you as a writer, so it is easy to fall into the trap of not writing anything! I suppose I’m lucky in that I find my research keeps moving and keeps me moving forwards: one thing leads to another question, which leads to an idea, which leads to writing and back to research for fact checking. I think the trick of not driving yourself off course, is to find your thread and commit to it. Of course, you will be influenced by new information but, if you feel something works in your plot, then use it. It’s called ‘artistic license’!

As far as Oak Before Ash goes, I’m making good progress, but I don’t want to give too much away at this stage, so you’ll need to ‘watch this space’ for more…


The Art of Creative Writing

I’ve recently been asked a few questions about how I write; how I find my ideas; how I progress the story, mostly from business colleagues and I understand the intrigue!

Writing a novel is an interesting beast and for those familiar with business writing, in comparison, the ‘thing’ that is lacking from the start is structure, I suppose. If you write a business report, you know what your key chapters/ sections are but if you’re writing a novel, these could potentially be anything! The likelihood of going off on a tangent is huge, which could be seen as an opportunity or a risk, depending on how you see it.

Interestingly, the first thing I put down on paper when I started thinking about Under the Yew Tree, was a series of chapter headings. So, I suppose my business writing experience came to the fore in this sense. Each chapter then appeared to unfold as I wrote, although I would bounce between chapters, depending on where my creative juices were flowing – or where my characters were taking me!

With Oak Before Ash, due to be published later this year, I’ve found the story emerging in a slightly different way; making itself clear in my mind even before I had finished writing Under the Yew Tree. It’s hard to explain how this happens to those restricted by the format of a business report but that’s why they call it ‘creative writing’!

If you believe you ‘have a book inside you’, the one thing I will say to you is: just start writing. See where it takes you. If you need to pull it into a structure, you will. But have faith in what you’re writing. Even if you end up deleting the first draft, it will open the floodgates and your creative thinking will flow…

Good luck – and let me know how you get on!