In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Katherine Stansfield offers a fascinating insight into beginnings and ends and their roles and the powerful relationship that exists between them.
The first page: an end in the beginning
The first and last pages of a novel are as distant from one another as it’s possible to be in a story – literally, in terms of the pages that separate them, and figuratively, given all that happens by the end of the story and how the characters have changed in the meantime. But the first and last pages have several things in common, not least the fact they are often the most re-written parts of a novel. They can also echo one another in all sorts of fascinating ways, with a beginning pointing forwards to things that will become important later in the story. The end is very often right there in the beginning when it comes to crime novels. That’s certainly the case with my own books.
Take the opening page of my historical crime novel Falling Creatures. The material that forms the prologue was the very first thing I wrote for this book. I had an idea that it might eventually go somewhere near the start of the story but I didn’t know exactly where. In the end, it formed the opening itself, the very first words that the reader encounters in what went on to be a series. It’s the reader’s way in and it was my way in as a writer. The reader and the writer encounter each other here, and they encounter key characters, too, as well as the setting, the voice, and what will turn out to be important metaphors for this book as well. The latter won’t be obvious until the reader reaches the final scene which, as it turns out, takes place in the same location as the opening. We’re back at the start, in some ways, but we know so much has changed since we first arrived.
What I want to do in this post is look closely at the first page of Falling Creatures and talk about my thought-process when I was drafting this section, and make use of the benefit of hindsight, knowing that two more books in the series have been published since. How does this prologue point forward to those other stories?
Here’s the first page, reproduced with the kind permission of my publisher, Allison & Busby:
The pony had given in by the time we found her. This was near the ford, halfway between Roughtor and Penhale. The marsh there was broad and very wet.
The creature had struggled, though, we could see that, for the grass was churned brown where she’d fought to stand. Her eyes were rolling white. Sweat was creamy on her shoulders. Her backside was sinking in the pit of mud and black water seeping. She was tired from the pain, from trying to get up. Her breath loud and rasping.
We stood safe at the marsh edge, where the grass was longer. I knew where a marsh started but that was because I was born on the moor. Charlotte was born by the sea. It made a difference, something like that.
Charlotte went to cross the marsh. I grabbed her. Harder than I meant to. She cried out.
‘We can’t help her,’ I said.
The only sounds were the sucking of the water and the pony’s hard breath.
‘Look.’ Charlotte pointed across the moor, towards Lanhendra. Ponies stood watching – four of them.
‘They’re waiting,’ I said.
‘Until she’s dead. They won’t leave her.’
The moor and its marshes were the only things that made Charlotte Dymond afraid.
She put her hand in mine and squeezed it. Her palms were hot, and rough as gorse. We were close as moor stone and the ground that held it.
Until someone uprooted us.
That’s the complete prologue. It comes to a little over one page in the printed book, 240 words or so. The classic device for opening a crime novel is the discovery of the corpse, and there’s a reason it’s so well used: most crime novels are about murder and it’s the body that kick-starts the investigation. Though it’s the end of the road for the victim, their death offers all the branching roads that give rise to the plot. Falling Creatures takes a somewhat different approach in starting but it’s one that’s still a trope of the genre: the symbolic death. Death starts the story but it’s that of an animal, a death that’s incidental to the main plot rather than a catalyst for it. In addition to an animal or bird dying, contemporary crime which uses the symbolic death might kill off a celebrity or a work colleague, or the end might be of a phase of life – a relationship or job. This is a case of there being an end in a beginning.
In Falling Creatures it’s a moorland pony whose slow death in a marsh prefigures the death of Charlotte who will die in a similar spot. Don’t worry – I’m not giving any spoilers here. The scene is recounted by the narrator who is remembering the moment when she and Charlotte saw the pony and there was nothing they could do. The idea of foreshadowing deepened into an ongoing theme of portents – part of the narrator’s world view, and a key part of the plot too, in this book and the two sequels. The idea of fatalism and lack of agency also took on wider significance. The world of this novel is one in which women lack power over their lives, something my narrator will fight.
Charlotte Dymond was a real person. In 1844 she was found murdered on open moorland, ten days after going missing from the nearby farm where she lived and worked. I grew up in the area where this happened – a small corner of Bodmin Moor in North Cornwall – and the story of Charlotte’s murder is still a topic of fascination there, not least because the identity of her killer has long been a subject of speculation. Falling Creatures is a reimagining of that real story.
In the prologue Charlotte is still alive and well, walking on the moor with the narrator who is unnamed here. Names went on to be a big part of this book and the two which followed. This wasn’t a conscious aim when I started writing what turned out to be the prologue, but the decision not to give the narrator’s name in this early section went on to have a lasting impact. In the writing which followed, her real name was a slippery, shadowy thing. She is given a nickname which she doesn’t like, but everyone uses it so she doesn’t have much choice in adopting it as her first name. I realised that hiding the narrator’s real name had its own resonance to the story, and that’s connected to the name Charlotte which was an unusual choice for a farm worker in 1840s Cornwall.
The historian who researched the case extensively, Pat Munn, suggests Charlotte might have been named after Charlotte, the Princess Royal who had died in 1828. A bold choice for an illegitimate child sent into service at a young age, banished from her community in a coastal village. Her name marked her out as seeming above her social status and her place of birth made her an outsider on the moor. Though the distance between this part of Bodmin Moor and the village of Boscastle, where the real Charlotte Dymond was born, is only seven miles, for insular communities with limited means of travel it was very far indeed. Charlotte is out of place in several ways, all of which play a part in her death in the novel. Mentioning the sea in the prologue, and the fact Charlotte can’t ‘read’ the dangerous landscape of the moor, pointed to how important this outsider status would become.
The name Charlotte was gifted to me by historical events, and as I was writing about the person involved in those events, I wasn’t going to change the name. I ended up responding to it in all sorts of strange ways. ‘Charlotte’ is a name that recurs through the three books in the series; one example is that another character based on a real individual has the same name in The Mermaid’s Call. That kind of coincidence is too obvious to be ignored so I embraced it and made the connection a feature of the characters’ relationship. Names – real and assumed – play an important role in the final scene of Falling Creatures too – another example of the end in the beginning.
Several other elements of the prologue set in motion aspects of the novel of which I wasn’t conscious when first writing. One is the fact the first reference to the characters is ‘we’: the third person plural. The story uses a first-person narrator but this character subsumes herself in the pairing of ‘we’. This was an early sign of her obsession with Charlotte and the way the narrator elides her own sense of self, a shadowy figure who is quick to lie and has her own dark secrets. As the novel developed, this idea of hiding took on a physical dimension with the use of disguises. Looking back, I think these aspects sprang from the fact I used ‘we’ before using ‘I’.
Another key line that stands out now is when the narrator tells Charlotte ‘They won’t leave her’, referring to the ponies which have gathered to watch their kin struggle in the marsh. This foreshadows the narrator’s commitment to finding out the truth about Charlotte’s death. At the time of writing, I wasn’t sure who would be cast as the detective in this novel, or much about the narrator’s personality at all. These early lines helped guide me, laying down a kind of character and plot track bed, not just for this novel but the two which followed.
The prologue also put some pins in the map. There are three specific locations mentioned here: Roughtor, Penhale and Lanhendra. Two are real and one is another of those tricksy false names. Roughtor is a tor: a granite-capped hill littered with the remains of Neolithic enclosures and Bronze Age hut circles. At the bottom of its slope lies the ford, also mentioned in the prologue. This is the place where Charlotte’s body will be found. Penhale is the farm where Charlotte and the narrator live and work, a real place not far from where this scene takes place. The name is a Cornish word meaning ‘head of the moor or marsh’. The farm can therefore be read as the gateway to the moor and to the plot. Lanhendra is a compound I created: ‘Lan’ means a church site or place of a church, and ‘hendra’ means a family farm. The two words are commonly used in local place names in this area and across Cornwall, albeit separately, and I use them to obscure a real place name that I felt uncomfortable using in this story. This was one of the very last things I changed in the novel, re-working the name to hide the real place. For a novel that turned out to be very much about hidden identities, this seems more than a little appropriate.
Looking back on the prologue of Falling Creatures now, a short scene which not only starts the book but starts a series, and was the very first thing I wrote to kickstart this fictional world, it strikes me that what I was really doing here was writing a map. In the process I decided, subconsciously, what the end of the book would be and some of the ‘landmarks’ in character and plot that would show me the route to reach that end point. The answers were all there at the beginning.
The Cornish Mysteries series is published by Allison & Busby: Falling Creatures (book 1), The Magpie Tree (Book 2), The Mermaid’s Call (Book 3). All three are available in hardback, paperback and as ebooks and can be purchased here: https://www.allisonandbusby.com/author/katherine-stansfield
Katherine Stansfield grew up in Cornwall and now lives in Cardiff. Her historical crime series Cornish Mysteries has won the Holyer an Gof Fiction Prize and been shortlisted for the Winston Graham Memorial Prize. She co-writes a fantasy crime trilogy with her partner David Towsey, publishing as D. K. Fields, and she’s also a poet.
You can also find Katherine’s Cornish Mysteries and the D. K. Fields trilogy on her Bookshop page.
Extract from Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield
©2017 by Katherine Stansfield
Reproduced by kind permission of the author and the publishers, Allison and Busby Ltd
While you’re here, don’t forget the amazing new Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival, Wales’ first ever international crime fiction festival, which will be making its home in Aberystwyth in spring 2022. And if you can’t wait until then, we’re staging a ‘taster’ festival online this year, completely free, from 26 April to 2 May 2021. To find out more, just join us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @GwylCrimeCymruFestival and @CrimeCymru.
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