Caroline Hardman reveals the process of writing her story, Bloody Marys and a Bowl of Pho for Stations.
This is where it all gets a bit murky, I’m afraid. What follows isn’t necessarily chronological, and in parts might not even be strictly accurate, but it’s as much of the process of writing the story as I can remember. It will probably make a lot more sense if you’ve already read Bloody Marys and a Bowl of Pho.
Given the varied nature of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies’ clientele, one of my first jobs was to work out what sort of customer my main character was. I brainstormed various monster options, and a vampire seemed like the best choice for lots of reasons; suitably formal and old-fashioned (for maximum contrast with the cool, young hipsters he was going to meet), and he could blend in with normal humans fairly easily. It was never my intention to call him Norbert, incidentally. That was supposed to be a place-holder name until I could think of something suitable but it just sort of stuck. I can’t imagine him being called anything else now.
I thought for a bit, too, about these ‘hipsters’ I knew I wanted him to meet. There would be a group of them, I knew, and they’d be quite young. Perhaps they would be art students, or from a fashion college. I knew that Suzie would be a bit different from the others, but I really didn’t know much more about her – or any of them – than that. I read up on the history of Hoxton , including its transport links, curious to find out what it would have been like when Norbert was first visiting, and brushed up on my vampire knowledge. I knew the basics – garlic, crucifixes, and so forth, but thought it might be helpful to have bit more to work with.
With the exception of the Kingsland Viaduct (the original train line servicing the area, now being used to carry the East London line), hardly any of this research made it into the final text directly. But nearly all of it informed the story in some way. I discovered, for instance, that Hoxton once had links with haberdashery and fabric, which is where the idea of Norbert’s mother being a seamstress sprang from. I imagined him first visiting the shop as a young boy accompanying his mother on her annual trips to London to stock up on material and mapped out the route they would have taken from Brighton to London Bridge, then a short walk over the river to connect with the Viaduct at Broad Street.
I also spent quite a lot of time wandering around Hoxton. I walked the route from the station to the shop, then onto a pub (where I stopped for a drink, purely in the name of research), and back to the station via a Vietnamese restaurant (more research, obviously – their pho was delicious.) I know the area fairly well, but it helped to spend an afternoon soaking everything up and trying to see it all from Norbert’s perspective. Little details like Joel’s striped t-shirt and the magazine reviews plastering the door of the restaurant came from here; I could have invented them, I suppose, but it was easier to describe what I had seen.
I knew that the tension in the story – the question I hoped would keep readers interested enough to keep reading – was to do with whether or not Norbert’s secret would be discovered. Of course all of this relied on readers knowing (or at least suspecting) that he’s a vampire from the start, so I had to plant some fairly obvious clues. I had a lot of fun doing this, and deciding what to reveal when. Early drafts of the story included more obvious clues from the beginning – some of these disappeared altogether while others (Norbert noticing Suzie’s necklace, and crossing a road to avoid garlic) ended up in different parts of the story where they ended up serving quite different purposes.
A trip to the pub part way through the story seemed like a good way to turn up the pressure, and also seemed like a realistic way for a group of twenty-somethings to spend the afternoon. Mainly, though, I just wanted to find out what happens when you get a vampire drunk. Not surprisingly, the slightly tipsy version of Norbert was a lot of fun to write.
I played with ways Norbert might reveal himself accidentally before thinking about what might happen if one of the group did find out. Would they be scared? Would they tell the others? For the longest time, I thought the ending was going to be an accidental reveal by Suzie. It might happen at the restaurant, I imagined, where there was bound to be garlic in some of the dishes. Norbert would nearly eat some, and Suzie would dive across the table to save him, or perhaps he would actually eat it and they’d have to call the paramedics……
As I kept writing, and exploring different ideas, something fell into place, and I realised what my subconscious had known all along. That this wasn’t just a story about vampires, or Vietnamese food, or even about a shop – it was a story about acceptance, and about trying to fit in. Once I realised that, everything else seemed to make sense, including Lucinda, who I had written into the beginning of the story very early on, without any idea of what she was doing there or how important she’d turn out to be. So instead of a big, dramatic finale with Norbert choking on his garlic-laden pho, it seemed more fitting to leave him exactly where we found him – on the outside of a window, looking in.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this is the story I ended up writing – it’s a theme I seem to return to time and time again – but if you had asked me before I started what the story would be about I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. That might sound strange but it’s how a lot of my stories evolve. I’ll start with a place, or a single character, or vaguest of concepts then write and write and write about it until – if I’m lucky – the pieces fall into place and I work out what it’s really a story about. And then I write it, and by the time I’ve finished I can’t remember ever not knowing.
If you’d like to pay a visit Hoxton Street Monster Supplies – and I can highly recommend a trip – the shop (at 159 Hoxton Street, N1 6PJ) is open from 1pm – 5pm, Tuesdays to Fridays, and 11am – 5pm on Saturdays. There’s also an online store . You might also like to visit Ministry of Stories.
© Caroline Hardman 2013