Monday 11 June 2012

At Last The Truth! The Curiously Unavoidable Harry Potter

Last week I blogged about Magic Cops the TV concept that laid the foundations for Rivers of London but there were other projects that contributed to the final book. I say contributed but what I really mean is cannibalised because if there's one thing I hate more than celery it's a good bit of writing going to waste.

A habit I, and I suspect other writers(1), have is idly playing with ideas. Often you're on a bus or a train or a walk and you have an idea which you then prod or invert or try to hammer into the wrong shaped hole. Often your not planning to do anything serious with it it's a more a form of mental exercise(2). Occasionally one of these idle thoughts will join up with another idea or accrete substance in the same manner a small child accretes dirt and suspiciously old boiled sweets. One of these metaphorically sticky children started with the idea of 'what if there was a Comprehensive(3) version of Hogwarts(4)'. This project never even had a working title as such it always existed in my mind as...

The Harry Potter Goes To Comprehensive School...thingy

The basic story idea, such as it was, followed a posh guy, who I'm going to call James, whose father is done for embezzlement and is taken out of his posh life and forced to live in his granny's council flat in East London. Once there a social worker turns up and says he has to go to a special school which turns out to be a state day school catering to the magically gifted. You can tell this is a basic TV idea because it's made out of clichés bolted together.

What Magic School (well I've got to call it something) did generate were a number of ideas that made it into Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho.

The first concerns the social worker who arrives to tell James he has to go to school, I made her an authoritative Nigerian woman but because this was a story about magic I wanted to give her an unconventional background. That's when I decided that she was the spirit of a small river in Nigeria who had emigrated to the UK and having found the Thames abandoned by its native spirits had moved into that niche. The parallel to the many immigrant groups who moved into London and took over small businesses, corner shops and food outlets is obvious(5). She moved over into Magic Cops relatively unchanged but when I came to write her in the book she became a proper Mama Benz(6) -  grander and much more formidable. This was because in the book I wasn't constrained by casting limits (TV executives get nervous if there are more than 3 non-white characters in a series) and once you have Lady Ty, Fleet, Effra and Beverley Brook Mama herself becomes the matriarch of a large and powerful family.

More surprisingly was the effect on Nightingale's background. In Magic School the headmaster had once been the head of a posh boarding school where the British wizarding elite sent their sons to be raised to take their place in the magical establishment. Only World War Two had destroyed that generation and left him mourning a 'lost' Britain. Some of those characteristics were eventually blended into Nightingale's background and a scene where the Headmaster takes James to the old school, now defunct, and shows him the wall of the honoured dead turns up in Moon Over Soho.

Now some of you are thinking, Magic Cops, Magic School you were seriously on a magic jag back in 2005 but these were not the only speculative projects I was working on at the time. There was Arthur Returns in which King Arthur wakes up in modern times; A Lethal Education which was a putative YA project which could be best described as Len Deighton for kids; Burning Cross a thriller about a serial killer who targets the white elite in a Southern Town during the 1960s; Primate City Blues a short story that I swear I will get round to writing about a bug (think Starship Troopers) detective sent to investigate why a colony is getting weird; Owen the Librarian a swashbuckling fantasy in which our hero is kidnapped by flying pirates and used in their quest for a macguffin; Space Princess which was my attempt to cash in on Disney's obsession with high schools and teenage princesses(7) and finally The Nerd which was my autistic detective show.

On top of that there were all the other notions that bounced around in my brain during that period, some of it fruitful most of it... less so. And that brings us neatly to :- One of the questions in a recent German email interview I had recently was: What do you reply when people say that Constable Peter Grant was a Sherlock Homes in the costume of Harry Potter?

My answer to that question and questions of a similar ilk is: you guys need to get out more! Next week we shall have a look at where the ideas come from in an instalment I like to call: At Last The Truth! The Back Of The Lorry.

(1) You never know with writers though so it's best to add some caveats when making generalisations.
(2) That is to say 'procrastination'.
(3) A Comprehensive is a non selective state school and is where most British people go to school - although not all to the same school... that would silly... obviously.
(4) Inverting an idea like that is always a fun first thing to do it's like upending a shoplifter - you never know what's going to drop out of their pockets.
(5) When I was at school you went to the Chinese chippy, there were four within walking distance of my house and my favourite was the Sun Do who did chips covered in barbecue sauce. Last time I looked the chip shops were all run by Kurds but it might have changed again by now.
(6) Mama Benz is a West African term for successful market women and traders - the Benz part comes from their supposed penchant for buying Mercedes.
(7) My favourite line from that came near the end;
Teenage Protagonist: It's all right for you you're like Queen of the Galaxy.
Space Princess: The Empire's only three percent of the inhabited galaxy, that less than eleven hundred planets and barely sixty three trillion citizens. When are you people going to learn to put things in perspective.


olracUK said...

If you steal your own ideas who do you sue for plaigarism?
And could you call it a re-mix special edition album version of the rare demo ?

Leslie said...

Comprehensive sounds like your version of the US "public" schools, funded by tax dollars (and bake sales). Attendance is mandatory until age 16 usually. We also have private schools (generally sky-high tuition), and Catholic schools, which are highly regarded as being a good education, plus you get your religious studies as well. (There are also charter schools and magnet schools, but I don't know what those really are.)

"Cliches bolted together" -- *shifty eyes* *stuffs Star Trek fanfic under the couch*

Speaking of which! You must must read Scalzi's "Redshirts". I believe it's a requirement for anyone who's written SF for television, actually. It even has a theme song!

Harlequin said...

A lad moving from a wealthy upbringing to normal life after his father is imprisoned? Was this making good on your threat to base a character on me someday? ;)

BTW, thanks for your description of Mum in Moon Over Soho. She unfortunately doesn't remember you but that's probably because the computer desk always faced away from the rest of the living room.

whitehound said...

1) Hogwarts *is* a comprehensive - it's a free, state-run school which takes anybody who can do magic at all, and is very closely based on Wyedean, the rather rough comprehensive attended by Rowling as a girl. Most of the staff are identifiably real staff at Wyedean (I know all this because the late John Nettleship, the Head of Science on whom Rowling has admitted she based Snape, was a friend of mine).

2) Here in Scotland chip shops are, and have been for at least 40 years, run by Italians.

3) That's not what "ilk" means. It's a technical Scottish term which means that a Clan Chief is chief of a clan whose clan seat (a sort of very local capital city) has the same name as the clan surname. So you could call the Queen Windsor of that Ilk, because her "clan seat" is Windsor Castle, and Toad of Toad Hall translated into Scots is Taid o' that Ilk, but the Chief of Clan Cameron is Cameron of Lochiel bec ause his clan seat is called Locheil House, not Cameron House.