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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Russell Dean talks about his new time travel book, Borrowed Time, and what inspired his characters in 1990’s England, and 1880’s rural Wales.

JJ Barnes editor of The Table Read online creativity, arts and entertainment magazine

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed author Russell Dean about his life and career, what inspired him to write his time travel book about the Welsh valleys, and the creative process that went into Borrowed Time.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

Ok, so I’m Russell Dean, but everyone calls me Russ. I’m 36 and I’m from Cardiff in Wales. Well, actually I’m from a little town a bit closer to the sea but nobody has ever heard of it, so I use Cardiff as a bit of a catch-all.

I guess I’d describe myself as a rugby loving nerd who thinks I’m far funnier than I probably am. I’m the world’s worst procrastinator, so giving me something to settle down and get done is a surefire way to ensure that every other non-essential chore gets completed. Then I go into a panic because I’m hurtling towards deadlines and have barely any time left. It’s a constant cycle.

Russell Dean on The Table Read
Russell Dean

I’m a coffee fiend and a chocolate addict and I’ve no shame in either. Most writers think pens and notebooks are essential, but I’m not getting any work done unless I’m fixed up on coffee and have a steady supply of chocolate on the go. You know, perfectly healthy stuff for someone who sits down all day at a computer.

When did you first WANT to write a book?

Always. I’ve been a huge reader for my whole life and I loved making up stories as a kid. When I was in the first year of high school, I remember taking my first book, scribbled on dozens of A4 sheets in blue ink, to my English teacher to look over. It was a story about a kid having to navigate Christmas with divorced parents and I was certain it was going to be a best seller. I must have been eleven and I’m sure it was dreadful, but he actually took it and read it and marked it.

He, for the next six years, absolutely guided and steered me. He was BRUTAL, too! He didn’t hold back his punches and told me exactly what was good and what was not and now, even 25 years later, he still checks in to see how I’m getting on.

I carried on writing and writing, sometimes full stories and other times just outlines or plot ideas, but my mind was always ticking over with adventure ideas. It’s just always been there.

When did you take a step to start writing?

Again, it’s just something that I always did. When I was younger, I never worried much about chapters and formats and such. I’d just write huge swathes of text and then file it away, but as I got older and started to consider that one day I might actually let people read what I was putting down.

I started developing more fully rounded, realised stories with arcs and side plots and character development, then I’d get another idea and shelve the last one and start something new. My computer became crammed with half-finished manuscripts and story ideas until one day I just decided I was going to sit down and go from start to finish and see what came of it, and I’m so glad I did.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

The actual writing process for ‘Borrowed Time’ took me about eight months, but I was lucky, if you can call it that, in having to shut my business for lockdown, so I had an abundance of free time on my hands and too much energy to sit doing nothing, so I sat at the laptop for like, 12 hours a day, pretty much every single day, until it was written.

Without the lockdown I’d have been relegated to late nights and weekends, so it would have likely taken me much longer. Aside from writing there was weeks and months of research that I had to do, but that also ran alongside the writing. It was really important for me to be as accurate as I could so I probably wrote a whole second book just with research notes to make sure everything was up to scratch.

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What made you want to write Borrowed Time?

The idea for ‘Borrowed Time’, came about completely by accident. I fancy myself as a bit of a genealogist and was doing research on my family tree. I’d always been raised believing that my family hailed from Pontypridd in the Rhondda, but after a bit of digging I realised that they’d only settled there about 120 years ago and that they’d actually come from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in West Wales, and had moved for the coal mining boom.

Wales isn’t a huge country, but the difference between the valleys and the west coast is massive, and it really changed how I thought about my family and the very different life they came from. Nosiness got the better of me and I hopped in the car and drove a couple of hours to find the village they were from. It was one of the most secluded places I’ve ever been to, deep in a valley and miles from a main road, they have just a church, a pub, a two-classroom school and a couple of houses and farms. There’s not even a shop there.

I started thinking about what life must have been like for my family while they lived there, and the life they must have led, but also how jarring it must have been to leave there. It’s a Welsh-first speaking area with little to no industry and so very isolated. Without today’s modern technology it would have felt even more secluded. I wondered about how I would have coped if I had to live like that, and what it would have been like to have met those relatives, and the story for Borrowed Time started brewing.

How would a modern-day man cope in the depths of Wales, unable to speak the language, not understanding the way to live, and being completely out of his depths. I wanted that alien-ness to really come through, so I made the protagonist English and had him whipped through time from his life of comfort in Cambridge in 1998, to a fictionalised version of that little village in 1889.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Borrowed Time?

The research was absolutely hardcore. So necessary, but jeez…! I am a stickler for detail so I was googling everything from the type of concrete they would have had on the roads to the type of underwear they might wear for farm work. I had to get used to learning Victorian money, and the cost of living, available foods and technology, everything you can imagine.

The hardest part was then having to cut so much back out. When the book went to editing there were sections that were trimmed for pacing and length, and so some lines or scenes had to go. Like, there’s a section set at Christmas and there was a line about Christmas crackers that ultimately got cut. It wasn’t important, but it was cool to know that they even had them, and with the little gifts inside, over 130 years ago. They just seem such a modern invention.

Another was Indian food. Did you know that you could go and get Indian food in West Wales in 1889? I had no idea! There’s a huge beautiful scene that I had to cut out where the protagonist and the love interest go around a market in the city and find an Indian food vendor and Tom, basically on rations since he arrived in the past, just about loses his mind. It was apparently quite common though, especially in cities with ports. The sailors would come in from around the world and they’d want a taste of home, so there would be traders near docks who offered all sorts of foreign excitements. I don’t know if the Victorian citizens of Wales had much of a palette for it, but it was possible. Unfortunately, the scene got cut because of length issues, but I have plans to add it to my website once the overhaul is complete, as a sort of bonus feature for readers. There’ll be other such scenes and stuff too.

Other than that, I suppose finding the voices and right language was the most difficult. I had to find some sort of balance for everyone that would come over well when reading. Victorian people had a stuffy way of speaking which doesn’t always translate well in the written word and I didn’t want the dialogue to come off as contrived. On top of that, 95% of the characters in the book are Welsh, and they already have a very distinct way of talking. I don’t just mean accents, either. There’s a way that we as Welsh people talk that’s like no other, and I wanted that to really come off the page.

I went to university in England and I stayed there for 8 years, and I would say things that my English friends would be completely dumbfounded by, that was totally regular back home. There’s also an element of offensiveness in the way the Welsh speak, which to other Welsh people is just endearing, I guess. We say things to each other that aren’t always nice or polite, but we know that it’s meant in a friendly or funny way. I know from experience that to non-locals it can come off a little harsh or brash, so I had to be able to convey it in a way that readers who are unfamiliar with that wouldn’t just think that characters were being unnecessarily harsh to each other.

Borrowed Time by Russell Dean on The Table Read
Borrowed Time

And THEN on top of that I had to get across that these Welsh people were speaking English as a courtesy to Tom, who couldn’t understand them, and so they would speak in ways that wasn’t always the most natural sounding. And of course, to them, Tom’s 90’s English way of talking just left a lot of them confused. It was a juggle, but the people who have read it so far have all seemed to really enjoy it and it hasn’t caused any scratching of heads, so I think I managed to get it pretty spot on.

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Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

When I write I always have an idea of who will lead the story. I’ll often write out a couple of pages of nonsense so I can find their voice, but with ‘Borrowed Time’, Tom was firmly wedged into my brain from the moment I started forming the idea so he wasn’t particularly inspired by anyone. His voice, his mannerisms, his look, everything about him was crystal clear to me, so writing him was easy and immediate. It was his name that I struggled with.

I see people on social media asking people for name suggestions and that always blows my mind a bit because my characters always have to tell me their names. I end up sounding it out in the writing. I think I got about 40 pages in before I settled on Tom, and until then, everywhere his name should have been was just filled with question marks. And it’s odd, because Tom is a kinda generic name, I guess, so you would think I just slapped it on, but it took a long while before I came to something that fit.

I’ve been asked if he’s based on me, which I think author’s get asked a lot, but me and Tom are very different beasts. Sometimes I would be writing him and he would naturally do something that fit his personality and the story and I’d be typing away like ‘nooooo, what are you doing that for?’ He’s very much his own entity now.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

This is a bit of a hard one. Books and characters need antagonists to keep the story and the momentum going but they don’t always have to be people. Anything that gets in the way of your character getting from A to B is an antagonist, so in a way, ‘Borrowed Time’ has many.

There is a villain, and he is very important to Tom’s story, especially in the second half of the book, but I guess the real antagonist is time. Or at least, the time period. Tom comes from a very comfortable, middle-class life filled with all the modern conveniences that 1990’s England brought, and then suddenly life becomes very hard, very fast. He’s in a country he doesn’t know, surrounded by people who are speaking a language that he doesn’t understand. He has no money, no friends and no way to get back to where he belongs.

As much as the story is about time travel, it’s just a tiny element, really. The biggest thing I want people to take from the story is the journey. ‘Borrowed Time’, is not overflowing with battles and wars, explosions or paradox dilemmas. It’s very much a character piece, and while it is filled with drama and obstacles, I want people to get from the beginning to the end and see how this circumstance has changed this person. I want them to see how he goes from a fish out of water to, hopefully, someone who can hold his own.

The antagonist is very much ‘life’, which I think is something that can speak to us all. We’re all just trying to get by and manage the best that we can with the hand that we’re dealt.

What is the inciting incident of Borrowed Time?

Tom is 26 years old and has spent his entire life trying to please everyone around him, but not really doing much for himself. When his very overbearing father dies, he sees it as an opportunity for change, but change doesn’t always come easy.

Tom’s twin, Lee, has always been the rebellious one, and convinces Tom that if he wants to make a change, he should sack off his responsibilities and go drinking with him instead. Tom reluctantly agrees, and the night gets wild. The following morning, Tom wakes up with a raging hangover and he’s in a field, in Wales, in 1889.

I’m trying to be as vague as possible because the book gets into the good stuff really early and I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but that’s pretty much what the blurb on the back cover says, so I think I can get away with revealing that much.

What is the main conflict of Borrowed Time?

Tom arrives in the past just as two locals from the village have gone missing. Most of the village think they have run away to be together after their parents forbade their union, but one person in particular sees this strange Englishman show up from nowhere and sets out to prove that he’s somehow involved, and he will go to great, dire lengths in that quest.

The biggest conflict though, and I’m going to get super cliché here, is internal. Tom has responsibilities and an ache to return home, but life in Wales changes him, and when an opportunity for romance takes him by surprise, he’s going to be left wondering in which time his heart truly lies and whether the happiness of his loved ones should take precedence over his own. He’s forced into a situation where both worlds are completely separated, and he cannot have the best of them both.

Did you plot Borrowed Time in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

I am way too much of a control freak to be a pantser. I’ve tried it and it makes me crazy. There are always elements of a story where you’ll be writing and think ‘oh, I didn’t expect that to happen’, or you’ll come up with a great idea at the eleventh hour.

The last two pages of the book had a very different ending until about a week before the final draft was submitted and I was reading it over and had this great idea that I knew I had to work in, so little changes and ideas can often throw plans into disarray, but generally I have full chapter outlines, story ideas, full character arcs, motivations, story notes etc. all planned out before I write a single word. I find, personally, that it keeps me more on track and really helps to inform the story. Especially with side characters. It means that you can have them moving around and weaving their plots into the main one which makes the endings even more satisfying, because you can see the breadcrumbs seeded throughout.

I envy people who can sit at the computer and type out a beautiful piece of work by just letting their imagination run wild. I’d love that, but I’m far too scatterbrained. If I don’t have it set out before I get moving, I’d end up either with no story, or a story that’s 3000 pages long and searching for a point.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Borrowed Time need?

I was lucky in that Borrowed Time needed surprisingly little. I was expecting the finished product to end up being a completely different book, but the notes were all really positive. Aside from the general checks for grammar and spelling and the like, the actual story is mostly the same as when the first draft was written. Some of it was edited for length and pacing, so the first two chapters were condensed into one to speed the progress along a bit, and the timeline changed a little.

Initially the book started at Christmas, but it was changed to October to allow the plot to breathe a little. Christmas is still in there but it’s now a couple of months, rather than a couple of weeks into the story. Some scenes got left behind, too, like the one I described above about the characters visiting the market. It was beautiful and probably the hardest cut, but it was wedged right between two high-drama plot points and slowed things down a bit too much. I’d have loved to have been able to fit it in elsewhere, but it was very much a time-and-place element of the story that wouldn’t have worked at a different part of the book.

There were also some characters who ended up being cut along the way, but I found that on re-reads they ultimately didn’t end up servicing the story. Tom’s mother had a much larger role in the opening of the book, but it was pared down, and there was another character who was great, but ultimately, I didn’t have anything for her to do. She was a great windbag who was far too opinionated for her own good, but she just stood around sniping rather than advancing or enhancing the plot, so she had to go.

My plan is to get all the cut stuff up on the website once it’s finished, as bonus content for readers, like you get on DVD’s. There’ll be whole scenes and character bios and outlines for the ones who didn’t make it to the final book. Just some neat little freebies for those who love the story and want a little bit more.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Sit down and do it. It might be the simplest yet most effective bit of advice you can follow. Nothing gets written while you’re standing around thinking about it, and every time you put it off, you’re depriving the world of beautiful characters and rich stories. You don’t have to be the best writer, you don’t have to have experience, and you don’t have to get it perfect first time. Just get it out on the page and start that ball rolling.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I can. I’m actually massively ahead of the game so the next few books are already finished and being formatted ready for release. The first sequel to ‘Borrowed Time’ we are hoping to get onto shelves either in late 2022 or early 2023. It’s called An Echo on the Wind, so there’s a little exclusive for you. I’ve just finished the final draft of the third book, but I can’t reveal the name of that yet. There is also a spin-off book coming after book two. It can’t release any earlier because of heavy spoilers for the main books.

Aside from the ‘Borrowed Time’ series, I have a novel coming out next year based on an old Welsh folklore tale, with a surprising twist, and I am deep in the trenches currently with a story set in the 1980’s against the backdrop of the mine strikes and closures. Despite how very hard the time was for Wales, and miners all over the UK, it’s a comedy and I am so excited for everyone to meet the characters from that. It’s a hoot!

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I can’t even describe the pride I feel. Not even just because the book is doing better than I expected, but because I sat down, I set myself a super hard task, and I got to the end. That’s incredible, and anyone who can do that, even if they never publish, deserves such a round of applause.

As much as I’ve always wanted to write, I’ve always been scared about people reading what I put on the page. I always thought it was going to be a hobby that I locked away and kept secret, but I bit the bullet and put it out there and the response so far has been incredible.

I reached the top 5 of the Amazon ‘Hot New Releases chart’ based on pre-orders alone and made it into the fiction top 50, so I can now, technically, call myself a best-selling author. I won’t though. I’ll just have a huge banner made and hang it over my house instead.

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

My website is currently under construction so for now, I can be found at the following.

TikTok – @russelldeanwrites

Twitter – @russdeanwrites

Borrowed Time is currently available on Amazon:

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