Why and how I wrote a story starring a moose.
The Boy and the Briefcase and the Moose is a madcap adventure set in a fictional secondary school in Rugby. There are no wizards, broomsticks and dragons, but there is a moose, and believe you me, a moose easily makes up for all that wizardry.
This is my first novel, but I know the basics. I know you need a thrilling adventure with genuine peril and excitement to keep the reader interested. I didn’t want a murder, plane crash or pandemic (they’re in the sequel), so I had a moose instead. The moose makes sure my characters have a lot to lose. The moose provides jeopardy.
I didn’t intend to create a romantic sub plot. That just kind of happened, but I liked the confusion, embarrassment and passion that caused. The moose wasn’t involved… or was it?
Because I’m lazy. I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to research. I needed a setting and characters I could easily imagine. School was the obvious answer. I did go to school once, and even if it was a very long time ago, I can still remember some of it. My job is designing schools, so it’s easy for me to visualise school buildings, and I’m also a scout leader, so I know how amusing kids can be.
Secondary school is a pretty crazy place. You take a whole heap of mismatched misfits and squeeze them into a small space; something interesting is bound to happen. Emotions are extreme, it must be the hormones. There’s cringing embarrassment, heroic achievement, desperate disappointment and ludicrous hilarity. It’s confusing, exhilarating, awkward, exciting, boring and scary. Those are the ingredients I want in a story. School seemed the perfect setting, and pupils the perfect subjects.
It’s a secondary school instead of a private school, grammar school, or a school for wizards, because I didn’t want a story about perfect people. I wanted it to be about kids like me; kids who find life confusing, say stupid things, make big mistakes, and get into a whole lot of trouble.
The other setting I used was my childhood home, so I didn’t have to think too hard about that either. My home was a fun place to be. My dad is a bit like Caractacus Potts, the mad inventor from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We had Frankenstein bikes cobbled together from trips to the tip, a zip wire, a tree house big enough to contain all six of us, a six seater sledge, and a slide attached to a vintage car. Maybe I should set my next book at home.
I had a schoolfriend who had a leather briefcase, which was a bit unusual at the time. When I got badly beaten in a fight he explained it was because I was a limp wristed boxer. In order to build up my boxing wrists, he held up his briefcase for me to use as a punch bag. With my better boxing wrists I never lost another fight. To be honest, I don’t think I had another fight. I was however, very grateful to him, for helping me out, despite the damage that could have occurred to his prized possession. The boy and the briefcase was the inspiration behind Winston.
I didn’t want the story to be just about boys so I created Josephine, my other hero. I liked the idea of strong female characters, I just wasn’t expecting them to turn out quite as strong as they did. At one point Winston describes a girl called Karen as having a face like a bag of spanners. When I wrote that, I knew she had to be important as well. Much of the story developed in that way. A character said something and I thought ‘Oh! That’s interesting, maybe that means…’
I thought it would be most engaging to see the story unfold through the eyes of one of the pupils. I created a pupil a bit like me to tell the story. This made it much easier to write. I could easily imagine how he felt and how he would react, because he was me. Initially I used my own name ‘Andrew Batty’ for this character. Andrew Baker was a subtle change that helped me to retain the connection. The problem was I got a bit defensive. I gave ‘me’ all the good lines, bigging myself up. Andrew Baker was getting too smart and too clever. I realised the story worked best when I was the geeky, awkward, accident prone, and emotionally unstable kid, Winston was the solid rock, and Josephine sharp, sassy, and confident. So, I reworked who said what.
I didn’t have enough words. That’s the truth. One day wasn’t enough. I didn’t plan day one I just wrote one thing after another until I got to what I had intended to be the ending. This is called “pantsing,” as in writing by the seat of your pants. Authors who write this way are known as “pantsers”. But, I didn’t have enough pages to fill the space between the covers. I needed a day two. Unlike day one, day two was carefully planned. I figured out the plot then infilled in a random order, depending on what took my fancy. Authors who write this way are known as “plotters”. So I ended up being a “Pantsy Plotter”, which could be a character in my next book.
Funnily enough, day two made the whole story much more interesting. Day two ended up being the best bit.
Once I had my story I went over and over it, making sure the pace and style was consistent and there weren’t too many mistakes. That bit does drive you mad. No matter how many times you check, there’ll be mistakes. You even create mistakes, correcting mistakes. Finally I asked people to read it. They pointed out bits that didn’t sound right, bits that were offensive, and bits that were boring. I couldn’t have written the story without their help.
When the publisher gets hold of your story they send it to the copy editor. Copy editors have an unnatural eye for detail. If they weren’t copy editors, they would be code breakers for GCHQ, restoring priceless artifacts for the British Museum, diffusing bombs for the army, or finding needles in haystacks for irresponsible seamstresses. The copy editor gives you a stern look, wags a finger at you, and points out tons of mistakes for which you apologise profusely. Red faced, you make all the corrections and promise to try harder next time.
I wrote The Boy and the Briefcase… and the Moose because it made me smile. I didn’t have a target audience in mind. It’s a fun, quirky, fast paced adventure set in a school, so maybe ‘Young Adult’ seems obvious. However, I think it’s for everyone; teenagers learning about life, old folks who have lived it, and everyone in between.