As a not-so-closeted food blogger, I could talk about food, and especially traditional English recipes until the cows come home. I don’t often indulge my three-cookbooks-a-day habit on this blog except when it comes to Gareth Flynn, but when I got the chance to interviw fellow Brit author James Collins, I did ask what he or his characters would feast on.
And then I was endlessly amused to find we share a favourite recipe, Shepherds Pie – also called Lookers Pie in the Romney Marshes where James Colllins’ novel The Saddling is set. Tickles me pink, that, as my memories of the Romney Marshes include cherries eaten on the beach, very excellent fish & chips, a blazing hot summer day spent on the back of a tandem, little flint churches… and not a single pub or anything to drink in cycling distance! Lookers pie didn’t feature anywhere, but I’ll make a point of seeking it out the next time we’re down there.
So let’s meet James Collins and see how he spends his time besides enjoying Lookers Pie!
If you (or one of your characters) could have the perfect meal, what would be on the table?
Me, I’d eat anything, more or less, but as for one of my characters… My latest novel, ‘The Saddling‘ and the other three novels in the series that will come after it, are set on the Romney Marshes in Kent. The village in which the stories are set is isolated and removed from the modern world, and it is also self-sufficient. All of the characters in the book/village would eat the same thing, so I thought about this question and realised that I had not mentioned food much in the book; I shall in the follow-up novels. But Barry (my favourite character from the novel) who is a farmer’s son and works the land, would follow a typical local diet, and his favourite meal would undoubtedly be ‘Looker’s Pie.’ This is the Romney Marsh version of Shepherd’s Pie (a Looker, in Marsh dialect, is a shepherd).
Romney Marsh is famous for its sheep among other things so the Saddling community would prepare the pie from ‘whiteback’ meat (whitebacks are sheep in the Saddling dialect) or from the meat of tegs – first-year lambs. It also happens to be one of my favourite dishes, giving me and my characters something in common.
How do you build your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start to write or do you find out as you go along?
I have a rough idea for characters and then let them grow from that. For example, Barry mentioned above, started out as a note: ’19, a runagate, stocky and strong, dark, hairy, comical, farmer’s lad, loyal to the nth degree, probably gay.’
As the story came out, so did the character. A runagate is another old Kentish word, meaning an unruly fellow, or someone who likes to break the rules (think of a sheep that constantly runs at a closed gate wanting freedom). He’s also a farmer, so he uses a strong dialect and that really helped in the character development. Once a character uses a dialect, you find that he can’t say things as you would want him to say them. ‘Mrs Vye will be opening the pub at seven, and we can have a drink then,’ becomes, in Barry’s voice, ‘Mistus Vye’ll ’ave the inn wi’e come boblight, and we’ll take ’alf an Old Tickle that time.’ And so on. With the character speaking in his own voice, you find that he develops and takes over.
Balancing characters against each other develops both. What I mean is, Barry is an earthy, down to earth farmer’s lad and, when pitted against the main character in the book, Tom Carey, you start to see how they would react, and this can mean having to go back and redefine your charters. They grow from a couple of notes into real people and say to you, ‘No, I wouldn’t do that, I’d do this.’ You may have written them doing something earlier which, after they have developed themselves, needs to be changed. That’s because you know them better at the end of your draft than you did at the beginning. Tom Carey, for example, started out with the note: ‘Computer nerd, London, obsessed with family history, public school, lazy, confused.’ He ends up being our hero and because of his interactions with Barry, discovers who he is and is no longer confused. He and Barry end up together. When I plotted the story, that was not going to happen. When the two charters started to develop, I saw that it was inevitable. Tom was meant to fall in love with someone else, Barry wouldn’t let him. I had to rewrite.
Pantser or Plotter? Why?
I’m a Plotter for sure, but a flexible one.
I usually start with an outline, or sometimes just a title, but I know what the story is ‘about.’ The Saddling is about sense Vs superstition, Remotely (a gay/straight body swap comedy) is about friendship, as are all my Miss P stories, and so is Lonely House even though it’s a horror novel.
From there I go with an action plot and work out my action through-lines. How the main character is challenged, by whom, who is the antagonist, what happens and where I want to end up. I often have the final climactic scenes in my head and know where I am going, and I get there through a long list of bullet points. I then change these as I go, as the characters take over, and fill out the subtle detail, the emotional lines and so on.
However, sometimes I find myself going off these rails and then have to fly by the seat of my pants and let the story go that way, maybe altering my ideas and plot if I think it’s a better direction.
Who is your favourite fictional character and why?
This is a hard one. My favourite book is Dracula, I love the diary form and the multi-angles, and I reckon my favourite character is in it, but not central. I first read this book when I was 11 and was mesmerised by it. It’s something to do with friendship again, the way the group of Harker, Van Helsing, Seward, Holmwood and Morris band together, that really caught me. I cried at the end when Quincy Morris dies (I wasn’t bothered about the Count) and he remains one of my favourite characters. Quincy Morris only a small part and rather inconsequential, I guess Stoker wanted a death on the side of the good to counter the death of Dracula, and so put in this romantic American (or was it for transatlantic sales?) Either way, a man who died nobly for someone he hardly knew… Well, that’s my kind of character.
What are you currently writing? Or what book have you just published?
I have a lot to complete this year. I am finalising another book of travel tales and stories about being an ex-pat on a small Greek island; that’s in the layout stage and is titled ‘Symi, Stuff & Nonsense’, it should be out in November. I have written the first two drafts of ‘The Witchling’, which is the follow-up to The Saddling, and have that one resting at the moment; I will come back to it fresh after the third project is completed. That is a screenplay I have been commissioned to write, adapting a novel.
After that, I have a load of stories lined up waiting to be attended to. Another ‘Miss P’ novella because she is turning out to be a very popular character, a third in the Saddling series ‘The Eastling’, and the life story of my late godfather which takes us on a journey of being gay between 1919 to 2004. But that’s a huge research project and something for later.
Length: 282 pages
Genre: Thriller / Suspense
Buy at: amazon
To inherit his aunt’s fortune, Tom Carey must unlock a one-hundred-year-old family mystery. The solution lies on the Romney Marshes where the village of Saddling lives by an ancient Lore. Unknown to Tom, the villagers set in motion a chain of calculated events that will ensure that the winter solstice will witness their last ever ‘Saddling’ festival.
Unaware that his life is in danger, Tom befriends two village youths. Through the mists of fear and confusion, their friendship forces Tom to confront a secret of his own.
Tom finds himself the unwitting hero in a struggle between superstition and sense, denial and love, with no escape from either.
Where to Connect with James Collins
More from James Collins
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Amazon