Plotting the course of a novel – on a defunct railway


I recently put together a mind map for my writing students about world building. this is a phrase usually used in conjunction with fantasy and science fiction, but part way through, I realised it applied just as much to stories set in unfamiliar real worlds – whether they be unknown because of distance, or time.

I’m currently working on a novel (or it might be a long novella, we’ll see), set in the same house in two different historical years, 1926 and 1976.

Now, I’m old enough to remember 1976, I was 15 that blisteringly hot summer, but weirdly I am more confident about what was going on and how things were in 1926! But that’s a digression.

I have been in a quandary about where the house is, it started as an exercise at the magnificent WOOA writing group, and fell fully formed into my head, notionally part of a village, on the very edge with no immediate neighbour. Slightly isolated, it is low and white with a heavy-set roof, and set back and down hill from a lane with a stone wall. There is a bog at the back doorstep, a bit of a stream/river beyond that,  a wood the far side of the walled lane, and a mountain in view. It feels as though it should be near the sea but it isn’t. I feel like I have been there, but I know it is a construct.

I want a real landscape to fit it into, so as I was putting together my mind map, and listing out resources, I typed in maps (oh, I love a map, real or imaginary) and then off from maps – site visits/ field study.

The story(ies) that set this novel off are all true, and I have the permission of those who told me to make use and exaggerate to my heart’s content, but they both originate in Ireland, and I’m not planning to set the story there, although, possibly that might make my life simpler.

A lot of googly stuff later, I had a list of places which have the right kind of bog, and a narrower list of places where the story is geographically possible. I have no intention of naming the local town in the book and I won’t here, either. A railway was crucial to the plot, a Methodist chapel (which type to be determined) and, it turned out, a quarry, which narrowed it down more. And then I remembered year ago trespassing on a disused railway, that ran beside a river through the most exquisite woodland, and there had been a chapel the far end of the walk.

Maps came out, the railway was identified, and A. talked into a  holiday close enough to check out whether memory matched reality. I’m too old and prim these days for trespassing, so we weren’t going to walk the railway.

Oh look! Quarries – lots of them!

So one wet afternoon we drove from one station to the next by the closest possible route, A. driving, me taking pictures, videos and frantically trying to take in what was going on, and navigate when the satnav threw a wobbly. We approached places we had been many times but on roads we had never noticed, and trundled through now obscure villages that had once had thriving industries. In some places you’d not know the railway had ever been there, in others gates, that are clearly level crossings, give away the game. Only one station survives complete.

But it wasn’t anything like enough. Expensively printed to order period maps have arrived, while I chase the perfect combination of quarry/river/railway/chapel/mountain/bog… ordinarily this would be procrastination, but not this time, I keep writing, and each new map, or railway timetable (NO trains on Sunday, right, ok…) finesses the detail, and plots the course of the next wet Wednesday in a week away, following the ghost of the railway.

Meanwhile I rack my brains for details of the mid 70s, the first stirrings of punk and it being so hot I didn’t leave the house after 10 in the morning for fear of melting, because those clichés of chopper bikes and tank tops? That’s not how I remember it!