Monday, 20 January 2014

Where do you get your ideas?

Where do you get your ideas? It’s a stock question when interviewing an author, not that anyone’s asked me yet! However, it’s best to be prepared, so to celebrate the launch of my first novel, Witness, I’ve had a little think about where the ideas for the book came from.

Neil Gaiman says his answer to this question is, ‘I make them up. Out of my head.’ – but admits that it tends to make interviewers unhappy. He goes on to explain that he gets his ideas from daydreaming and asking himself ‘what if…’ questions, which pleased me no end, as that’s what I do.
St Swithin's pre-1880

I can trace my ideas for my first novel, Witness, back 30 years to a post-university stint on a history research project at the University of East Anglia when I was asked to produce a pamphlet about St.Swithin’s Church, also known as the Norwich Arts Centre. St. Swithin’s had an association with the medieval tanner’s guild and this sparked off an interest in cloth preparation, so when I joined a creative writing class in 

St Swithin's today
Leicestershire and was set homework to write the first chapter of an historical novel, I started off with Matthew Reed’s stomach lurching at the smell of urine as he entered a fulling mill on the banks of the River Ver in St. Albans. Editing moved this scene to chapter four, but this was where idea for the whole book started.

The creative writing class got me hooked and when it finished I started a writing group with some of my fellow participants and my historical novel developed. In stowing away on his father’s cart, Matthew’s dream had been to get to London. One obvious place for his father to sell his cloth was Cheapside and during my research I stumbled across an article on an American blog which mentioned the ‘Cheapside Horde’. This remarkable collection, now the feature of a major exhibition at the Museum of London, is regarded as the greatest cache of Elizabethan jewellery in the world. In 1912, workmen demolishing a 17th century building discovered a decaying wooden box beneath a brick floor. Stashed there by some long-forgotten goldsmith, the contents of the box included over 500 pieces of 16th and 17th century jewellery of the type which would have been worn by wealthy merchants and their families rather than the aristocracy.

The Cheapside Horde
The idea of this jeweller stashing his wares under his floorboards took hold in my mind. What had happened to him? Why had he never gone back to collect his box? Perhaps he was murdered and he’d never even told his wife where his riches were hidden, and so my goldsmith, Thomas Hyckes, was created as the maker of this jewellery. In early versions of Witness, I had Matthew and his father, John, examining the jewellery and buying it as a gift for Matthew’s mother, but this got lost in the editing process and instead Thomas Hyckes became the friend in London to whom John Reed could turn when Matthew finds himself in danger. The Cheapside Horde is not in itself mentioned in the novel, but we do see, or rather hear, Hyckes carefully putting his stock away somewhere secret in his workshop on the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside.

As the novel progressed I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing and so booked myself on an Arvon course with the authors Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman. We covered a huge amount in our week of workshops and writing, and I learnt a great deal about developing characters and about the underlying structure of a novel. I decided that Matthew was on a journey, both in an emotional and physical sense, and created a map of where I wanted him to travel, which ended up stretching from London to Waltham Cross. I’m a very visual person, and so this map, made up of pages printed from Google Maps and glued together, was where I pinned bits of research associated with Tudor England and places along the route of the Old North Road. Much of this went into the second of Matthew Reed’s adventures, some of it never went anywhere other than the map, but one bit of research which made its way into the first novel, Witness, was about the Eleanor Crosses, which ended up featuring at several points during the novel.

Waltham Cross
Charing Cross

The inclusion of the Eleanor Crosses is largely down to family living near Waltham Cross, where a fine restoration exists of one of the twelve memorial crosses Edward I erected along the route of his beloved wife Eleanor’s funeral procession between Lincoln and London in the 1290s. This cross interested me originally because of its similarity with the one standing outside Charing Cross Station in London, which I had passed on many an occasion during my later teenage years - Charing Cross being my entry point to central London nightlife from the suburbs. In Witness, the Eleanor Cross link begins with Matthew and the playwright, Richard Beaumont, in their scene in at the foot of the Eleanor Cross in St. Albans.

The inspiration for writing can come from various places. Thankfully, writing what you know does not mean that you have to stick to things within your life experience. If it did I’d write mostly about school, children and dogs. To me, writing what you know means using your experiences in your writing. A major part of Witness was written while travelling round Europe for a year in a small van with my husband and our dog. Lots of small details from this modern day trip ended up accompanying Matthew in his journey. I studied a man fly fishing on the banks of a river in Luxembourg, and this, filtered through research on the history of fly fishing, found itself a tiny place in Tudor St. Albans. In Poland most places we camped seemed to have stands of silver birch, and we collected fallen branches for our camp fire. I noticed that when the bark was peeled back it left a beautiful pale pink wood shining beneath. It also left brown stains on my hands. Some of these details made their way into parts of the novel.

Often the ideas you start with spiral off into new places. In fact, it can become difficult to keep track of your research as you flit here there and everywhere, chasing your thoughts. It’s a fascinating process, but there’s an inherent danger of it all taking over your writer’s life to such an extent that little writing gets done. Blogging can be a bit like that sometimes, so I’d better stop now and get back to my last bits of editing on the sequel to Witness. I’ve yet to decide on the title, I still have a cover to produce and I need to get back to writing my Iron Age novel.