Working on a novel over a period of many months often takes me so far away from the initial source of the ‘inspiration’, that it is hard to identify the starting point. However, a little thought and back-tracking about each novel, brings me to the conclusion that my first ideas often arise from random encounters with historical non-fiction.
More than ten years ago, having decided I wanted to write an historical novel, I visited Colchester Central library and poked about in the History shelves. I have little idea why I came away with an armful of books on the Spanish Armada, but I plunged in, discovering the complex political background to the conflict, the strategy of the English navy, and the factors leading to its victory. This was all very interesting, but the idea for a novel that I might be capable of writing, only started evolving when I read about the escape of the defeated Spanish fleet up the east coast of Britain and the fate of one ship in particular, El Gran Grifon, which was wrecked on Fair Isle.
Now here was a good situation (for a novel, not for the 200 unfortunate castaways, nor the impoverished islanders, of course). According to the sources, the Spaniards climbed from their broken ship on to the island where they were marooned for several weeks. Few details of what happened were documented, though various myths exist, so here was fertile ground for invention and imaginative re-construction. Plot and character ideas started flowing: What happened when the foreign soldiers and sailors landed? How did the islanders greet them? Who were the islanders and how did they live? What fears and tensions might have grown between the two alien communities? What friendships? What of the privations they would suffer on such a tiny island?
These and many other questions drove me to more focused research, about 16th century peasant life on a Scottish island, the history of Fair Isle itself, knitting, Spanish galleons, ships’ crews, etc etc etc. During this reading, I was madly scribbling notes about my principal characters and soon a version of the romantic historical novel The Salvaged Heart began to take shape. The central premise and the themes took some time to emerge clearly and the actual writing, with many wrong turnings, re-writes and substantial changes was both fun and a challenge.
Several of my other novels have sprung from a similarly ‘random’ approach. However, no selection is ever entirely random; choice is based on a range of conscious and unconscious factors such as prior interests, personal experiences, awareness of one’s ignorance, a striking book cover, favoured historical periods. For my next novel, I didn’t have to read far in The Scottish Enlightenment by Arthur Herman before discovering my inspiration: an account of the hanging of Thomas Aikenhead, a 19 year old student of Edinburgh University in 1697, for blasphemy. Little is known about his background, though his ‘atheism’ is well documented. The religious conflict and the economic depression in Scotland at the period provided a powerful context, as characters in the form of family, enemies and associates of Thomas Aikenhead started emerging from my head. The Darien Disaster by John Prebble, an account of events nearly contemporary to the execution, provided the second large plot element in the novel The Bookbinder’s Daughter.
Frequently, reviews of non-fiction titles spark an interest, which I pick up and explore. Reading historical material, as an inspiration for fictional writing is also for me a thoroughly enjoyable way of filling up some of the huge gulfs in my knowledge of history. Mostly, however, it is the smaller, often incomplete or barely documented human stories that give me the essence of plot and character, for the type or fiction I write, rather than the large sweep of events social and political, national and international, though the characters’ own troubles and conflicts can be set within these wider contexts.
I have other sources of inspiration too, but those are for another time!I’d be interested to hear where other writers find theirs