Two years ago, I read a moving article about the decline of Alwine, a village in the country formerly known as East Germany. After the end of communist rule and the fall of the Berlin Wall, millions of people left for the west and many industries in the east ground to a halt. In Alwine, the coal mine closed down. There was no work, no future for the young. The doctor left. The dentist left. The buildings were no longer the responsibility of the defunct state. The tiny remaining population was growing old. And the village was eventually put up for sale at auction.
I knew at once I wanted to set my novel here, or in my own version of this sad, desolate place. There were so many questions begging to be asked. How did the residents of Alwine feel when their village was sold to the highest bidder? Did they welcome change, or simply want to have their homes repaired and up-to-date facilities installed? Did they fear modernisation or welcome it? What if they couldn’t afford the rent?
And how did the buyer feel, a stranger entering this dignified community surrounded by beautiful woodland, which was deeply respected and loved by the families who had lived there for generations and persevered through so much upheaval?
The questions kept coming. Questions without answers, at least not yet. Questions which paved the way to the beginnings of my novel, then inevitably generated more questions. Would I write about the changes the buyer might carry out? I discovered from other articles I found, however, that Alwine has changed hands a few times now without anything in the village changing at all. So should I focus my novel instead on how the villagers felt when yet another new buyer turned up to assess their acquisition? And what about this intruder? What kind of person wants to own a crumbling, forgotten village?
That was when I decided there had to be two main characters: the newcomer and a resident. By sharing the narrative, they would be able to give different viewpoints about the future of the village. The reader would also need to know why the newcomer has become the owner of a derelict cluster of buildings in the middle of nowhere. And if he has a story to tell, then the villager should have one too.
Deciding that Instructions for the Working Day needed two viewpoints presented me with a dilemma. How would I make both characters intriguing, their narratives equally compelling? And how do you write a novel that feels cohesive, with every beat of its plot interconnected, when there are two separate stories to tell?
First of all, I made sure the characters were completely different from each other. This might sound counter-intuitive, bearing in mind the need for cohesion. However, it was surprisingly helpful. It encouraged me to overlap the two contrasting stories with a central theme to bind them together, a connecting thread between one human being and another, like two people caught in the rain sharing an umbrella.
At first, Neil and Silke appear to be poles apart. Neil is a young man who makes a living from buying and renovating houses in England, while Silke is a woman in her fifties who has spent most of her life looking after chickens in her remote and dilapidated German village. She has suffered as a result of the post-war division of her country, particularly after the construction of the Berlin Wall, when she was a university student in East Berlin. Whereas Neil, tormented for years by his cold and callous father, has suffered as a consequence of his upbringing, rather than historical events.
Initially, the reason they converge is straightforward: Neil’s father has bought the village where Silke lives. Neil inherits it and comes to stay at Silke’s house while he works out how to save the village from rotting away. However, I was keen to pursue a psychological association between them, rather than a physical one.
As my plans for the novel progressed and the characters developed, the link which united Neil and Silke gradually became clear. Both had been badly betrayed, albeit in different ways, and were deeply troubled by the trauma of their past. Each one was shouldering an oppressive burden which was blighting their chances for a brighter future. This shared distress formed the bond which joined the two stories together.
It was vital, however, to ensure they each dealt with those burdens in their own distinctive style, not only appropriate to their circumstances and opportunities, but also in keeping with their own personality and temperament. This way, it would be immediately evident on every page whether the reader was with Neil or Silke.
My interest in writing about these characters kept growing, the ideas expanding from the unusual setting. The forgotten village was the vital starting point for Instructions for the Working Day. Neil and Silke developed from this location, as if they had been waiting to be found there. And once the main characters begin to take shape, I don’t think there is anything else at work apart from the author’s imagination. There are no other answers to the question of how an author brings characters to life, characters who can create their own story.
Once the two opening chapters, one from each viewpoint character, were planned in detail, the dual narrative was on safe ground. This was the key moment for me. At this stage, I was so excited by both characters that it was relatively straightforward to keep planning until the end, alternating between Neil and Silke. It gradually became clear what had happened to them, how the past had become such an onerous weight and whether either would ultimately be free to set their burden down. As the story unfolded, all my earlier questions were being answered at last.
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