Inspiration is a curious concept and when it comes to the writing of a novel it is, at least for me, not a singular thing. The etymology of the word ‘inspiration’ harks back to notions of inhaling something from without - a spiritual influence, a divine force. For those of us who are queasy about notions of divine visitation (how would God taste, after all?), it is still useful to think of such matters in this way, for it relieves us of the burden of genius. After all, a preparedness to fail is perhaps one of the writer’s most essential qualities; it’s always handy to have someone to blame for a lousy reception - as long as you’re also willing to share the credit should things go well.
For me there is rarely a single moment of inspiration but, rather, a series of small insights that coalesce over several months – sometimes years - into a bunch of characters living in a particular time and place, each of them with their own set of problems. These characters, the setting and their problems must be out of the ordinary, make me sit up and pay attention. After all, they have to intrigue me enough to want to spend several years of my life with them.
Novels emerge over time and for me the process is better likened to an archaeological dig more than anything. It begins with a feeling, a sense of something interesting beneath the ground. Activity is sparked by the discovery of a couple of shards that suggest to me that there might be a story somewhere beneath the surface: a character trait; a manner of walking; the image of an abandoned house I cannot shake; a tantalising what-if.
What if a man were to meet a young girl he came to believe was the ghost of his murdered sister? A time of great loss, right after World War I. During the Spanish flu pandemic, perhaps? There is a sense, for some, that the end of the world is at hand. A London séance? The man’s name is Quinn. He is injured, lonely, grief-stricken. She is wild, sassy, superstitious. Her name is always present, intrinsic to her character. She is called Sadie Fox. Each of them finds in the other a quality they themselves lack, as well as an aspect of someone they have lost. There is justice yet to be served.
Thus the premise for my novel Bereft was born several years ago.
But that, of course, is merely the beginning of having a novel ready for publication. What follows is, for me, a rather arduous process of trial and error, of poking around in the tunnels beneath the ground in search of useful trinkets, scraps of dialogue, of seams of meaning from which I can hopefully construct a narrative of sorts. There are moments of easy digging, when the way ahead seems obvious and certain. At other stages the ground is impossibly compact and defies progress, in which instance I might have to double back and seek a new direction. Sometimes the tunnels cannot hold and entire byways are closed down. I’m not a writer who is able to plan out a novel in advance, aside from the roughest of sketches. I have a sense of certain scenes, an ambience in which I wish the action to occur, the response I am seeking to evoke in a reader.
And, if I am lucky I can emerge after a few years from my various tunnels, having assembled the disparate shards into something with a compelling narrative, an urgency to the lives of my characters and – most important of all – a story that makes the reader desperate to turn the page.
Then I just have to write another one. Which reminds me … I’ve been thinking of a young man new to a city, a million-dollar art forgery scam, some charismatic criminals, a place called Cairo.
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