This time last week, I was in Spain, staying in a small hotel in Grenada. The room was tiny, the floor space almost filled with bed, miniature chair, spindly bedside table, and odd piece of furniture made up of many tiny drawers (a spice rack? escritoire?). There were terracotta tiles on the floor and rough plaster and bizarre masonic-looking ornaments on the walls. The window (framed in wood with complicated latches, shaded with gauzy patterned cotton) looked out into an interior courtyard, some 12 feet below street level. In the courtyard (scarcely bigger than the room) were clusters of decorative tiles, pots of healthy spiky greenery including (I think) a jasmine – and a patch of blue sky four stories above.
On the second morning, I woke early (as is my habit). The room was still half-lit (even at noon, no direct sunlight found its way to the bottom of the courtyard; a blessing in high summer) but I could sense the day beginning. The hiss of car tyres on the cobbles outside, maybe every couple of minutes; taxis collecting tourists for early train departures, deliveries. The onset and abrupt cessation of plumbing gurgles and judders. Distant bird song and occasional muffled voices.
I started to think (as I invariably do when undisturbed and undistracted) of my story and my characters. I am now two-thirds of the way through my first draft and already thinking (extremely tentatively and very nervously for fear of jinx) of extending the story into a Part 2 or a sequel (I suppose publishers have a say in that sort of thing – if I ever get that far!) I am beginning to feel my characters deserve more than the up-lifting (but ambivalent) ending I have in mind at present. And then – unbidden, unsought – their continuing story started to unfold before me until, within fifteen minutes, I had actions and causations, a couple of strong set pieces, and several snatches of dialogue.
I lay rigid, hardly breathing for fear of breaking the spell. It was like the inspiration that sometimes comes in dreams (which almost invariably looses cohesion or credibility on waking; later, I made notes on my iPhone and this still made perfect sense). So, what set of circumstances or alignment of planets brought about this joyous rush of inspiration? I feel it is important to try and identify the formula for future reference.
First, I know my characters. Each has a strong and credible back story, subject to constant critical examination and picky revision. (Picky example: without thought I originally described my secondary hero’s kissing technique as “surprising competent” – hint of irony, hehe – only to realise a day later that there is no way D would be particularly competent at kissing being as he is a shy, young man in 1913, living in family home, remote rural area etc.) With strong back stories, there are certain roads my characters just have to travel; this is, after all, fiction and not real life so I don’t have to be too clever…
Which brings me to my second circumstance; the limitations of time and place. It’s 1913 and guess what’s around the corner? I may play around (for dramatic convenience; I do hope that is acceptable) with exact dates and attributions but one can’t really place a story in Europe in the second decade of the twentieth century and ignore the massive elephant looming ever larger in the room. And so events start to unfold and my characters are swept up or react accordingly.
Third, I was on holiday. In four days, I had read three (paper) books, and listened to many hours of an audio book; Wade Davis’ unutterably brilliant Into The Silence; an account of “The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest”. I had crossed half of Spain by train, drifted around art galleries, monasteries, and gothic cathedrals, thought about war and death, duty and desire. This vague, unfocused, cultural osmosis led (like a plait of tangled hair) to three seminal decisions about my characters and what lies in wait for them: Of course my soldier hero would have been on unauthorised spying trips into Tibet in 1910 (that’s what was happening then)! Obviously my heroine’s new lover would be an artist into El Greco (newly discovered in the 1900s)! And what other fate besides tragic death could there possibly be for my incompetent kisser but to die – blind and horribly injured – in a field hospital in WW1?
And the final sprinkling of fairy dust on my crepuscular inspiration (can twilight apply to pre-dawn?) was probably – prosaically – the fact I didn’t have to get up (go to the gym, get to work); nothing to plan, not much to worry about, my mind in pleasant free-fall.
Just got to write it all now.