How Conspiracy 365 came to be Or Wrangling a 12 volume series
When this project was first pitched to me by Andrew Berkhut at Scholastic publishing, I couldn’t have known what a huge undertaking it would turn out to be. Sure, writing 12 books would be a big job, I realised that, but they were only 35,000—40,000 words each. I was used to first drafts of a 130,000 words. Somehow, that thought – ‘they’re only 35 thousand words– assumed more importance than it should have.
My first job was to find a story that was big enough, and a hero and characters compelling enough, to sustain the reader’s interest over a story arc as huge as this one.
I knew there would have to be an amazing secret at the heart of the story, something ticking away, something counting down to a thrilling climax. Then there was the problem of the time span to overcome. All good thrillers have their action happening over a number of days at best, weeks at worst. To have a thriller running over a year seemed a bit like trying to put some tension into a mile long race with snails instead of horses. Somehow, I had to find ways of creating tension and suspense over a whole year.
One of the great things about writing is that after 30 years in the game, this writer has learned to trust the process. And it is a process – with a large unconscious component in which seemingly unrelated and unconnected strands, ideas and characters eventually start to mesh, arising as a series of ‘Ah-ha!’ moments, which often solve seemingly intractable plotting problems. While the huge unconscious part of mind is on a global search reaching back 3 million years to when the first hominids started grunting at each other, drawing on personal experience and race memory covering aeons, conscious mind, too, is hard at work organising facts, actions, possible plot twists, reversals, characters, settings and moods.
After our conversation, I walked back home around the coast and the energy and excitement generated by my meeting with Andrew started rolling around, gathering ideas. I knew it would be a first person narrative because that’s the most powerful voice – I knew it would involve a boy of about 15 so as to be attractive to the target audience and I knew he would have to be in pursuit of something extraordinary. By the time I got home, the seed of Callum Ormond was starting to germinate. Quite by ‘accident’ (I put quotation marks around that word – even Freud said there were no accidents -) I’d been idly googling my family name Butler some time before this and had come up with a very distant ancestor, Black Tom Butler, the 10th Earl of Ormond. It was his name as much as anything else that drew my attention – there was a touch of a pirate in his nickname and so I started reading about him. He was a cousin of Elizabeth Tudor, spending a lot of his childhood in the English court, and as an adult, he was the Queen’s man in Ireland, in charge of her interests. During this period of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Butlers were the most powerful family in the southeast of Ireland with holdings all over the area. Black Tom was a prodigious builder, creator of Kilkenny castle in Kilkenny and the beautiful Ormond Castle at Carrick on Suir, to name just a few. Black Tom had five legitimate children and at least 12 illegitimate offspring. But what mostly drew my attention was a particular rumour – that he and his cousin Elizabeth the First were more than just kissing cousins. Moreover, it was rumoured that one of black Tom’s illegitimate sons, Piers Duiske (dark Piers) was the son of a very great lady whose identity was shrouded in secrecy. When I discovered that Elizabeth referred to Black Tom as “her black husband” and that she was rumoured to be pregnant whilst at Ash Grove, a grand estate where she spent a lot of her childhood and young adulthood, I seized on a possibility. In the great forests that then surrounded Ash Grove, it would be easy enough for two teenagers to slip away. At that time, the Lady Elizabeth seemed a long way away from the English throne, and according to her half-sister Queen Mary, was nothing more than the bastard offspring of an illegitimate marriage. What if? I kept asking myself, as the implications grew. Books can arise from a very short question.
However, I wasn’t writing an historical romance – far from it. My brief was a fast moving action and suspense crime thriller – covering 12 months of the year with a book coming out every month. Something that would keep young readers on the edge of their seats, and hanging out for the next one.
It wasn’t a matter of writing just one huge book and then slicing it into 12 servings. Each of the 12 books had to be structured carefully — a beginning, a middle and an end – classic three act structure, with the dramatic build moving towards the climax and with each book ending on a tantalising cliffhanger. Each book had to advance the main plot story so that the story arc was being traversed, while at the same time, other plot ingredients, the surprises, revelations, and reversals, so essential to dramatic writing, took their rightful places in the structure. Each book, too, had to deliver a certain amount of satisfaction to the reader – that information had been gathered, that a secret had been cracked one way or another, that a relationship had moved into a different level, that the plot was unfolding and revealing parts of itself. Each book had to satisfy as well as tease the reader to be impatient for the next one.
With such a huge story arc, I needed to use all the tricks and devices that are available to the dramatic writer. The solving of one secret needed to open up the box in which another one hid. And so on. Nor could any of this come easily to Cal Ormond. My young hero has to fight every inch of the way. And even when he has a triumph and discovers something valuable which will help him in his quest, it is very likely that quite quickly, this advantage will be taken from him. There also had to be many steps built into the quest for the truth. It couldn’t be revealed too early.
In a story as big as this, a lot of information has to be conveyed. There is nothing more boring than the flat exposition of information. You might as well go and write a manual. In good writing, exposition must always be concealed – that is, made almost invisible by the interesting drama that is surrounding the exposition, so that the reader is informed without really noticing it. There’s a rule in writing: “it’s always better in conflict.” So that when something important needs to be revealed, the revelation should come within the words of an argument or a conflict, or better still a serious misunderstanding between major characters. In this way, the reader being human, does what humans do – barely notices the necessary exposition but focuses instead on the powerful emotions in the scene. The NLP people have made some interesting observations about this.
I needed a McGuffin – that’s the device that draws the story along – like the Falcon in the Maltese Falcon. Often, the McGuffin has no intrinsic value of its own, but in Conspiracy 365, the McGuffin -something called the Ormond singularity — is of enormous value. This lends credibility to the feverish search for the truth about it. The Ormond singularity, the McGuffin in Conspiracy 365, is the first step on the path to the amazing secret. This draws the story along, giving it a distant horizon which beckons to the characters, promising something amazing – if they can survive the events of the plot.
Creating this secret, then hiding it deep within the narrative and putting lots of obstacles in front of it, is the name of the game for this series for this writer.
First things first. Before my hero Callum Ormond can discover what the Ormond singularity is all about, he has to decipher seven mysterious drawings, sketched by his dying father who had lost not only the capacity to speak or write, but also to connect ideas. Drawing on Dr Oliver Sachs book: The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, with its perplexing case studies of men and women whose neural connections were mis-firing for one reason or another, I devised a seeming UVI – an unknown viral infection for Cal’s late father in which he can only draw something which is not quite what he means to draw. This provides intriguing graphics, drawn by my very talented editor Rebecca Young, showing seven seemingly unrelated images. Cal and his friends, however, come to see that his father was desperately trying to convey information about the Ormond singularity to his son. Deciphering the drawings leads to the discovery of the Ormond riddle. This seemingly whimsical rhyme, contains essential clues to another mysterious object, the Ormond jewel, a heavily jewelled locket containing her miniature given by the Queen to her cousin black Tom Butler. (Elizabeth gave Sir Francis Drake a wonderful gift known as the Drake jewel which you can Google and admire to get some idea of what the Ormond jewel might look like. In fact the Ormond jewel really does exists but only because I commissioned the jeweller Victoria Spring to create something from my specifications.) However, Elizabeth did give her cousin something valuable, the order of the Garter, which he is alleged never to have taken off, even sleeping in it.
The Ormond riddle leads to the Ormond jewel and the young investigators realise that they are dealing with a double key code – neither the riddle nor the jewel are of any use alone. They must be understood together.
As to creating the Ormond singularity, I was lucky enough to have helpful contacts in friends of mine who are lawyers, and in Ireland where the story ends up, I was lucky enough to meet some wonderful people, including the keeper of rare books at Trinity College, Dublin, and an Irish circuit judge who took me to lunch at his Dublin club, and among other things, made some suggestions about the legal nature of the Ormond singularity.
My hero Callum Ormond is on the run from Book 1. In the prologue, he is warned by a staggering, sick man, who manages to gasp out a few words before being seized by ambulance officers and returned to whatever sanatorium he comes from. “Beware the Ormond singularity!”he warns. Within a few days of his warning, Cal’s world is turned upside down. The use of a warning is standard folklore and fairytale tradition,And immediately sets up tension in a story – make sure you leave the ball by midnight, if you go down to the woods today you’d better not go alone, Black Beard warned his young bride not to unlock the door to a locked room. The young boy who purchases the Mogwoi in the movie Gremlins, is given two warnings: never let water drop on its fur and never feed it after midnight… The human condition we are told derives from the failure to take heed of a warning: do not eat the fruit of this tree… in stories, warnings are never heeded. And that’s where the story takes off.
To keep the pressure up in the story, I’ve set up poor Cal to be hunted not only by the police who believe he has viciously assaulted family members, but also by not one, but two criminal gangs: one headed up by Mr Vulcan Sligo, the other led by criminal lawyer Oriana de la Force. Both these parties are determined to beat Cal to the possession of the secret of the Ormond singularity – and to eliminate him if they can. Over the course of the 12 books, as other people get wind of the huge reward that lies behind the Ormond singularity, Cal finds he has other rivals and enemies.
The story of what lies behind the Ormond singularity, involving historical figures and a smidgen of reality, provides the spine of the story. This is the quest the 15-year-old boy must undertake. But around and leading up to the quest, Cal must deal with all those forces who are trying to intercept him. This is what creates the action. Solving a riddle no matter how complex, is not a very active business. So the clues have to be spread around and create difficulty and danger before they can be found and used. Along the way, Cal needs to find allies in strange places, to confront enemies, and deal with them. But in all this, he must never lose sight of the main game. Neither must the writer. In such a pile of words and stories, it’s easy to get lost.
To keep the satisfaction rate high, in every book, Cal needs to find something essential to the quest – he has a trusted friend, Boges, who is a total brain, handy with computers and who provides Cal with the moral and technical support that he needs in his fugitive life – not to mention cheeseburgers and chips – as well as coming to his aid in both a physical and mental way. An enigmatic and beautiful girl, Winter Frey, seems to be a helpful figure, yet is very closely associated with one of the criminal gangs. Can she be trusted? Or is she playing a hidden hand of her own?
To further strengthen the sense of tension and purpose throughout the 12 books, each of the three main characters needed to have a journey of his and her own. Both Boges and Winter have goals of their own and sometimes these interfere with Cal’s needs as do Cal’s needs with theirs.
Just managing this amount of material is a bit overwhelming. After having broken the story down along the months of the year, I sat down and I started writing movie-style treatments of each book – about five or 6000 words outlining the shape and structure of the book, the plot points, any gains made by Cal towards solving any part of the mystery left him by his father, reversals and losses, and the final build towards the resolution of that book, and then the cascade running towards the cliffhanger—whether it’s being chased along the railway line into the path of an approaching train, of finding himself trapped in a fast filling underground oil tank, trying to land an aeroplane without any fuel, escaping from a cannibal in the middle of the night, (Scholastic blinked at this one!) finding himself in the lions’ enclosure with an angry lion swishing its tail at him, diving into a flooded river to save his washed-away little sister, or being buried alive 6 foot under – thank God for mobile phones!….whatever mortal danger he is in that accelerates towards the end of each book…
Each book in the series has to be meticulously structured because it has to work as a book itself – it can’t be just a bleeding chunk – it has to be an elegant, well shaped read.
By the time I had written the 12 treatments, I had a fair idea of where I was heading, not to mention a solid document of about 150 pages. Most of the action takes place around the city and countryside but the last book takes Cal and his friends to Ireland, where they confront the final obstacles and discover at last the amazing truth behind the Ormond singularity. Creating this final scene, gave me great pleasure and delight. It also gave me the very best excuse to go to Ireland myself and research some of the rumours I’d heard about black Tom and Elizabeth the first. Walking through Kilkenny and Waterford I encountered all the names from the Irish side of my family—the Butlers, the Foleys, the McNamaras and the Cusacks. At Carrick on Suir, due to the Intervention of a local poet – historian, Michael Coady, Ormond Castle, closed for the season, was opened up and although I wasn’t allowed to take photographs, I could walk through the 14th century Norman battlements and into the Tudor manor house built by black Tom in his attempt to lure the Queen to Ireland for a visit. As I walked into the narrow hallway that led from the watergate courtyard, there is still just discernible in the stucco, the fading portraits, black Tom on the right opposite his cousin the sovereign Lady on the opposite wall.* In the intricate ceiling decorations, the Queen features again – her likeness and her coat of arms repeating along the architraves. Whatever the truth about their relationship, they seemed very important to each other – when Elizabeth made her famous speech to the fleet before the English navy sailed out to deal with the Spanish Armada, Black Tom was riding behind her holding the Sword of State.
“Can you think of anything that will make this huge job easier for you?” Asked my kind partner. “Yes. A dedicated laptop – a laptop that only has Conspiracy 365 on it – each draft of every book – and believe me there have been a few – there are at least six or seven for each book, sometimes many more, saved on the hard drive as well as on a dedicated memory card. The new laptop has nothing on it except Conspiracy 365 and a few letters. We went to Kmart and bought 12 deep plastic lidded boxes, one for each book, and a much larger one for all the research notes, the history books, and notes I’d made in Ireland, the maps of Kilkenny, Waterford, and Carrick, the photographs I’d taken, including photographs of the Butler chalice, gifted to Duiske abbey at Graignamanah (the meadow of the monks) by a 16th century Butler. Duiske Abbey and surrounding lands formed part of the inheritance left by his father Black Tom to illegitimate Piers.
Then switching on my new laptop, I opened up the big mauve folder that held the12 treatments, opened up the first page – Treatment of Book 1 – and started writing “January”, the first book in the series. Or rather, dictating, because chronic RSI after 30 years of keyboarding in less than ergonomically perfect conditions, have made typing and mousing very problematic.
It’s the story of a young man coming into his inheritance – in every sense of the word. It’s my hope that over the year of reading, young readers will also discover much about themselves, and become better equipped to deal with the complexities facing them. Above all, Conspiracy 365 is about love. The project too was undertaken with a lot of love by me, the ancient secret at its heart is all about love, and Cal’s motivation is also based in love – the love of his family of life itself.
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