Years ago, I worked as the features editor on a magazine. My job was to come up with ideas and find writers who wanted to tackle them. I remember thinking that my brain must be changing, the billions of neurons connecting in different ways, because I saw the whole world in terms of potential features. (I must have been so much fun to live with.)
I wonder sometimes if that’s how novelists work too. Most of us take a long time to get started, producing unpublishable manuscripts that never see the light of day as we teach ourselves how to write. Maybe that’s how the fiction neurons start firing. As time goes on, armed with our brand-new fizzy brain connections, we try to become better at focusing on good ideas – ideas that other people (readers, publishers, reviewers) might like as much as we do.
But even that isn’t enough. Writing a novel is an exercise in endurance (or, as George Orwell put it, which I find immensely comforting, ‘a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness’). It’s not enough to have an idea. The idea must burn so strongly in your skull that you want to devote a year, five years, twenty years to writing and rewriting in the search for something that comes close to your first vivid inspiration.
If you’re lucky, you won’t have any choice in the matter. The moment or image or snippet of fact that eventually becomes a novel gets its teeth into you, shakes you into submission, drops you to the floor to see what you’ll do, and then pounces on you again if you try to escape.
In short, it won’t let you go.
In his wonderful Guardian piece, George Saunders talks about this very thing. ‘Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt.’
The image can be based on something you read, something you hear, something you see. It can be a childhood memory that you’ve never forgotten. Linda Grant, shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (the winner will be revealed on 7 June), says, ‘When I was a child there was a mass x-ray campaign across all the cities of Britain, an attempt to eradicate TB by a national public health programme. I remember seeing those vans as I walked to school with my mother and desperately wanting to be x-rayed myself. The image of those vans stayed with me for decades and became the starting point of an idea to write about TB in my latest novel The Dark Circle.’
For Sarah Dunant the first stirrings of her novel came from a sensory experience. ‘Walking through dozens of silent beautiful renaissance convent cloisters while researching Sacred Hearts I kept on hearing the slam of the cell door and the sound of a voice rising up screaming. That voice stayed with me and became the first sentence of the novel and the seed of a character and a story.’
Sometimes you come across something by accident, recognise its power, but can’t, at that moment, think what to do with it. Five years ago, while researching Burial Rites, Hannah Kent stumbled across a snippet in a newspaper about the 1826 trial of Nance Roche in County Kerry, who claimed she was not guilty of the charges before the court because all she’d been trying to do was cure a fairy-struck child. ‘I had so many questions. I wanted to know whether this fairly outlandish claim was something she genuinely believed or whether she was rather using it to avoid punishment.’ And so The Good People – a story about curses, rituals, fairies and changelings – was born.
Twenty years after Louisa Young had written the biography of her grandmother Kathleen Bruce – who in WW1 had worked with Major Harold Gillies, the pioneering surgeon of facial reconstruction – she went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. There Louisa saw again the photographs of those damaged faces and the methods Gillies was inventing for mending them. ‘Across from one large and heartbreaking photo, I found one of the pre-printed field postcards wounded men were given to fill in/delete as appropriate, to send home. It read: “My Dear . . . . I want to tell you before any telegram arrives that I have received a slight/serious wound in my ……” I looked from the photograph of the man with the mangled face to the little form he would have been given, and back again. I considered his circumstances and his feelings. I began to fill in the card on his behalf. I found that of course he was lying: ‘My Dear Mother, I have received a slight wound in my stiff upper lip…. ‘ My Dear I Wanted to Tell You was the result. ‘An unfilled-in card is a story asking to be written.’
It’s often what’s missing that inspires us. Matthew Plampin was staring at one of J. M. W. Turner’s watercolours, a painting of a ruined castle in the grounds of Harewood House, a stately home in Yorkshire, and saw two tiny figures sitting on the grass, both men, one an artist. ‘I felt certain that this was a reference to something specific. Is the artist a self-portrait? Who is the other man, and what is he doing there? And why did Turner include them at all, in the corner of a scene destined for the drawing room of a millionaire aristocrat?’ There was no way of discovering any more – Turner had been very secretive throughout his life, and there are scant details about the Harewood visit, made in 1797 when he was just 22 years old. But, as Matthew says, ‘When the historical record lapses, historical fiction can flourish. My last novel Will & Tom began as an attempt to answer these unanswerable questions.’
If I now tell you about my own experience of an idea that wouldn’t let me go, I’m putting myself in the company of writers I greatly admire – clever, successful, award-winning writers who are all much better than I am. I have gatecrashed a party that no one invited me to. Or perhaps, more accurately, I invited everyone to the party and am now about to stand on a table and sing karaoke.
But the starting point for this whole piece was my own bewilderment at being kidnapped by a snippet of historical fact. It was like seeing a sliver of light at the edge of a door and being asked to describe what was behind it, or being handed an unfamiliar key and being told to find the lock it belonged to.
So this is what happened.
Fifteen years ago, we went on a family holiday to the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, staying in a Victorian stonecutter’s cottage in the village of Acton. I picked up a copy of Rodney Legg’s Purbeck Island and read about John Ball of the Ship Inn in Langton Matravers who, on the night of 18 December 1878, just after closing time, had a row with his wife. She ran back to her mother’s house, and he followed with a shotgun. ‘She was barely behind the cottage door as it was hit by a blast of shot. John went back to the inn and shot himself in the public room.’ Because he had committed suicide, John Ball couldn’t – according to the law at that time – be buried in consecrated ground and was taken outside the village and ‘buried like a dog’ in a field in an unmarked grave. The local rector was appalled and called for the law to be reformed. ‘For charity’s sake we must protest against this! It is time for even Purbeck juries to know that the sentiment of our times is dead against such verdicts.’
I looked up from the book and thought, ‘But what if he didn’t really kill himself? What if it was all an elaborate charade?’
If you write historical fiction, you don’t always choose your subject. Sometimes it chooses you.
- Corfe Castle, Isle of Purbeck
- Langton Maltravers, 1895, from from Purbeck Camera by Mike O’Hara and Ben Buxton
- Purbeck Island by Rodney Legg.