Underground, Overground

Those of you who follow me on Facebook (so, three out of the four people reading this blog) will know that I was lucky enough to have a peek around some of the disused and backstairs areas of Charing Cross station this weekend just gone. I can’t claim special privilege. All told, upwards of a thousand people will have seen what I saw. Every so often, the London Transport Museum (well worth a visit in its own right) organises guided tours around abandoned/curious bits of the Underground. This time, it was Charing Cross; this time last year, it was Aldwych. The Tube’s always had a bit of a quiet fascination for me – blame the classic Doctor Who serial Web of Fear for that – so I find poking around abandoned platforms and ventilation shafts far more entertaining than I should.
The timing of this trip proved particularly serendipitous, as I closed out a draft of my current novel project, Coldharbour, last Friday. Coldharbour is set in present day London – our London, not some pandimensional duplicate – which means accuracy’s important. For me, the whole point of using a familiar or iconic setting is to use it as it is.
Yes, Coldharbour has paranormal aspects, and outright fictitious locations (at least, I hope they’re fictitious, otherwise some worrying folk in suits will likely knock on my door shortly after publication), but if I’m fortunate enough to have the book be successful, I want readers to be able to walk the ‘real’ locations, because that’s half the fun of having a story set in the real world. It’s the same reason I spent an afternoon walking around Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery – if my heroes and heroines have to walk, run or crawl through a place, I want to walk through it, if possible (I’ve never been much for running, and crawling is so undignified).
That being the case, the opportunity to do a little retroactive research – or, more accurately, some retroactive double-checking – for Coldharbour was too good to pass up. I’d been down to London at the start of the writing process, chiefly to take a look at some of the places I wanted to use. Alas, no synopsis survives contact with the process of padding it with dialogue and wotnot. All the photos I’d taken around the location of the abandoned King William Street station were no longer of any use and I had a dauntingly long list of bits and pieces I at least wanted to get a proper look at, if not photograph, to serve as a replacement.
All in all, this culminated in following the Piccadilly Line above- and below- ground between South Kensington and Holborn, then south to Aldwych. One exhausted camera battery later, I was left with a mass of reference photos, a list of tweaks for the book and, more importantly, the feeling that the physicality of Coldharbour would be about as real as I could make it.

It’s a long way down, and no mistake. They’re called deep level lines for a reason.

Was all that necessary? For me, absolutely. For others, maybe not. A lot of the research I’ve done for Coldharbour could have been done (and indeed was initially done) from my office, with the aid of the internet. For all it’s other… well… challenges to privacy, Google Earth is a godsend to writers wanting to walk distant places. I don’t know how many hours I spent lurching up and down a virtual streetview of the Strand or High Holborn.
But writing’s as much about confidence as anything else, and the confidence that comes from having actually trod the streets has given me a warm, cosy feeling about Coldharbour that’ll last at least until I start finding all the typos and plot holes that I’ll be called upon to fix – and probably for some time after. That’s worth a very great deal indeed.
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