My new novel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, is a sequel.
There are many advantages to writing a sequel, especially for a historical novelist. All that general research has already been done: what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled. I knew how many people were living in London in 1728 (approximately 600,000). I knew about coffeehouses and brothels, bookshops and prisons. I knew who was in power and even what the weather was like.
And then there was my main character, Thomas Hawkins. I knew him very well indeed. Not only his character, but his voice. I’ve been asked on several occasions whether it’s difficult to write from a male perspective, particularly as the books are in the first person. I find that rather baffling. Fiction is all about creating characters, about imagining yourself in another person’s shoes. Tom is an extrovert, who needs to be out in the world to restore his spirits. Like most writers I’m an introvert. I squirrel myself at home when my batteries need recharging. For me, that’s a more significant difference than gender. That and the fact that he is, you know, living in the eighteenth century.
Anyway – the point is, I understand Tom’s character and I know his voice. I could give his opinion on any given subject (drinking: for; being hanged for a murder he hasn’t committed: against). This was very helpful when it came to writing a sequel.
But there were also challenges. Terrible things happened to Tom in the first book, The Devil in the Marshalsea. He was beaten and tortured, and he was betrayed horribly by a friend. Tom is a resilient man, but at the beginning of the new novel he is still recovering from those events.
So I needed to reflect that. I also had to refer back to what had happened in the first book without confusing readers who hadn’t read it. (Or indeed spoiling it for them if they wanted to read it later.)
This seemed natural to me. He is not quite the same as he was before he was thrown in the Marshalsea prison. That’s not surprising, is it? Characters should be affected by what’s happened to them, otherwise they are just little pieces of plastic being shuffled around the plot.
Every author who writes a sequel knows there is a balance between creating a completely fresh story and connecting the character back to previous events. Too little and it feels unrealistic. Too much and it becomes boring. Similarly, if you’re not careful, redundant characters have a tendency to stick around from previous novels. I have made a vow never to crowbar a character into a story just because they were important in a previous book. I would rather kill them first. Yes – I am a cow like that. They must have a clear and honest purpose to be there.
Beyond all these decisions, there is the simple challenge of actually completing a second novel, of course! Just because you’ve done it once, doesn’t automatically mean you can do it again. At least, that’s what the small, mean voice in your head whispers sometimes, usually when you’re stuck on a particularly troublesome scene. Luckily, I would rather sit alone and write than do almost anything else. (Introvert, remember.) I love to become completely absorbed in another world – writing or reading. It’s a miraculous pleasure.
I loved writing The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, barring a terrible moment early on, when I realised the story needed a significant change in order to work. I paced up and down for three days, turning the plot around in my head like a Rubik’s cube. I recommend the old adage: sleep on it. (It’s amazing what the subconscious can do. And sleeping is almost always a good idea anyway.) Having written a sequel, maybe one day I’ll write a prequel. Tom’s old cell mate, Samuel Fleet, has a few stories up the sleeve of his tattered red dressing gown. Another time, maybe. Another book.