I am writing a novella based on the life story of my grandfather, who was a spy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we think.
I started the process with scoping the story back in the summer, and then some preparatory drafting until November, when I started writing proper. This coincided with NaNoWriMo which is held every November around the world to encourage novel writing. I met a group of local writers and we have continued to engage since then.
I thought I could write fiction as easily as non-fiction, having completed my book ‘Building Passions‘. As it turns out, fiction is equally difficult. While you don’t rely on the accuracy of historical facts, for example, you do need to now how to build a close, personal link to your readership.
The big learning curve for me has been writing dialogue. I found this a challenge as it wasn’t a strong point for me. I’m good at narrative. However, my writing group has helped me develop these skills, so now I feel more confident. I can turn narrative into dialogue fairly easily, though know I must resist the temptation to write a screen or theatre play.
“Tell me John, why do you not want to be an architect like you father and brothers? Why a civil engineer?”
“I like sketching and designing, but I’m more interested in the maths behind those structures first proposed by myself or others. I have no ego about creative proprietorship. I just want to be sure buildings and bridges stay up for ever.”
Such might be a fictional dialogue between a young John Wolfe Barry and a Victorian contemporary.
Perhaps I should write more such exchanges?
I blogged a while back that I’ve started writing a novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr.
This fictional story connects with the non-fiction of ‘Building Passions’ and in deed this website, through the theme of families.
As I said at the book launch of ‘Building Passions’ last week, I’m fascinated with family relationships and legacy. My grandfather almost lived out a novel or even a series of short stories. These included his mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, life partners and children.
While I am more comfortable writing non-fiction, particularly linked to history or education or the built environment, I realise that fiction is the big one. You can mould your subjects and develop their stories in parallel with the flow of events around them.
The book will actually be a trilogy called ‘The Other Red Baron’, split between three phases of Lex’s life as there is so much to cover about him. However, the core story is on his spying career and his passionate love affairs in Tashkent, London, Berlin and Paris.
As things develop I will consider how best to communicate on my progress – currently I’m sharing my writing trials and tribulations as part of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org), its Kent community forum on Facebook and in meet-ups with local authors in and around Canterbury.
I’m launching the print copy of ‘Building Passions’ on Wednesday 20 November in Central London. The e-book has been out since September on www.kobo.com . The full title is Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture .
The day before that, English Heritage will put up a Blue Plaque on the house in Chelsea where Sir John Wolfe Barry lived and died.
Both of these events will be a major personal milestone for me as an historian and author. But they also represent the first steps, I hope, in my shared efforts to expand our knowledge about the built environment. As I have recognised in my book, Roma Agrawal really started this for many of us with her fantastic book ‘BUILT’.
What happens after the book is launched?
Well, I’m writing my next one, an historical novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr, who may have been a spy … I hope to publish it in 2020, a century after he escaped from the clutches of Soviet Red Guards in what is modern day Uzbekistan.
I will continue to promote ‘Building Passions’ through the website and give talks about it to local audiences in Kent where I live.
I’m also thinking about doing academic research linked to one of the themes in the book – what helped define architectural ‘modernity’ in the Victorian era, how does this link to our built environment legacy, and why is it important for the current process of quality design and build?
Or something along those lines …
It’s 17 days until I launch my book ‘Building Passions’!
The last time I used a countdown on this website was leading up to celebrating 125 years of Tower Bridge earlier this year. Before that I properly launched the website in January 2018, a hundred years after the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry.
A lot has happened since then and even earlier when I first sent in my application for a Blue Plaque for JWB. In 16 days time a plaque should finally go up on the front of the house where he died on Chelsea Embankment in London.
I am currently part of a local Kent group of writers who are aiming to complete 50,000 words of a novel n the month of November, as part of a worldwide charity called NaNoWriMo. It’s not easy, but more doable if you have others in the same situation.
I have promised the group that I will tell them more about self-publishing based on my experience to date so below are some brief bullets to whet the appetite:
- Plan, plan then plan some more – you can’t do too much!
- Seek out those with a greater expertise than yourself whether directly or via social media
- Be realistic about deadlines – they can shift as long as the end product is completed to a high standard, but not for ever
- Break down the project into streams and tasks so it becomes more manageable
- Don’t give up however bad you might feel on certain days – good news is just around the corner!
- If you want to use lost of images and fancy design features then be prepared to spend time and money on it
- Find reliable people to work with – they may not always be the very best, but at least they will deliver when you need it
- Imagine what your book will look like and try and stick to that dream, with occasional adjustments
- Above all, don’t even write a book if you aren’t convinced that people will want to read it!
I saw the printed version of my book today! The feeling was one of elation after 9 months gestation.
Though I didn’t carry our daughter for a similar period 19 years ago, I kind of understand the emotional ride. As a father your relationship tends to develop later on, once they are up on their feet more and starting to think for themselves.
Why did I leave it so long to write a book?
Because there were other things going on in my life and they always came first. I’m not complaining. But I did have to take a risk and stop full-time work to self-publish the book.
I did other things as well, but in effect I have had a type of parental unpaid leave with no job to go back to. My wife has been incredibly supportive throughout this period, for which I am very grateful.
I’ve started planning my next book, a historical novel, and will write it during November as part of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already sought editing proposals for the finished draft. It will be published in 2020, 100 years since the protagonist, based on my grandfather, escaped from the Communists in Tashkent and ended up living a new life in England via Persia and India.
I’m currently sitting in our hotel room on Ischia trying to write my next book.
Since recently self-publishing my first book ‘Building Passions’, I now have some time to focus on the subsequent one. It helps that it’s raining all day here and that yesterday we went on a 10k walk which included the 800m peak of the dormant volcano on the island, so my legs are still recovering a bit.
My next book is historical fiction based on a true story close to me. It’s about the eventful life of my grandfather, Lex von Behr, who had no links of any kind to a Batman villain with the same first name. However, he may well have been a double agent for the British and Soviets, possibly also for the Germans. We may never know the entire truth.
We do know that he died in Paris in 1951 from serious burns caused by a fire in his apartment. My grandmother was convinced this was due to his spy work, I have my doubts, but then this is why I’m writing it as historical fiction …
The common theme is family stories, which I feel are both historically and socially important. The former, because they provide a case study in a different context of how human groups have behaved and what they have created. The latter, because we are all part of families, whether fully related or not, and these close networks need to be reinforced by their stories, good or bad. I’ve blogged about this before.
I’m still mulling over whether I need a new website for the new book, or one that brings together the two books under the family story theme. Watch this space.
Sometimes I wonder why it takes so much effort to self-publish a book!
I thought the writing part would be hardest, and at times it was a struggle for me. I had to start again with a new structure a few times until I got it right.
Then the editing, design and image search took me longer than expected. This pushed back the original finish deadline from July to end September.
But even the final run in was frustrating at times, including indexing and finalising the e-book version to hit a final publish date of 24 September.
I have been working on the print version in parallel, almost as a separate project, which in fact it is. There are still frustrations with simple things about getting the right page size and numbers, plus ensuring good quality print. And then there’s the launch on 20 November in London …
Would I want to do this again? Not for architectural history! But yes for historical fiction which is my next book due out in 2020 I hope.