…is the question writers are asked time and time again. Along with, ‘How long does it take to write a novel?’
I’m rather partial to Terry Pratchett’s theory that inspiration comes sleeting down like rain and it’s just luck if an idea hits a suitable receptacle rather than a camel or an oak tree but as it happens I do know roughly how my most recent novel, A Crowded Coffin, came about, so, inspired by a post on Sue Moorcroft’s always informative and helpful blog http://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/ here it is: the genesis of a murder mystery.
Back in about 1974 I was a young mum with two small children and we lived in Hillingdon, near Uxbridge. I’d just signed a contract for a children’s book – which sadly never got published but that’s another story. What to write next? I had an idea for a teenage-type book about a seventeen-year old girl who lived in a rambling and almost ruined castle with her elderly grandparents. A young man would enter this crumbling idyll and… well, that was about it, really. I knew he would be somehow damaged by Seeing Something Nasty in the Woodshed (or something equally horrid) and that there would be a Roman mosaic pavement.
Scroll forward to 1979 and we now had three children, lived near Weybridge in Surrey, and had just spent a year living in Egypt. My book had progressed in the shape of a few more scrappy notes. The girl was a bit older, the castle less ruined, the young man still suffering ‘orrible pangs of h’agony (as yet from an unknown cause) and there was still a Roman mosaic pavement.
By the mid-80s we were living, as we are now, in Hampshire and I was writing stories fairly regularly for The Brownie Magazine, the reason being that I was by now a Brown Owl. My Sleeping Beauty – for that’s who she was really – was still stuck in her castle with no progress on finding out what was wrong with her prince. However, she still had a Roman mosaic pavement.
Now we’ve reached 1991 and this is when I finally wrote the book – the first draft anyway. This time the girl was in her early twenties, the young man recently returned home from some still unmentionable trauma undergone heaven knows where. The family had taken a step upwards socially and the grandmother was a Russian aristocrat who escaped from the Revolution as a child. The girl, whose name I can’t remember, was assisted by her former headmistress, Miss Harriet Hathaway (she had a name change later) who at that time bore an uncanny resemblance to Margaret Rutherford. Harriet’s cousin Sam, the clergyman, also made his debut. The Roman mosaic pavement had sadly vanished, to be replaced by rumours of a ruined Roman villa.
In 1992 I sent it off to the Romantic Novelists’ Association for their New Writers’ Scheme, only back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, New Writers were called Probationers. (Ooh, Matron!) To my surprise the book, at that time called Death and The Dragon Stone, got a second read but wasn’t considered ready for publication. One of the readers suggested the title and the story were more suited to a mystery than a romantic novel. That was a light bulb moment – from then on I mostly wrote mysteries. I tweaked it according to the various comments from the NWS and sent it off to an agent. She took the unusual step of sending me her reader’s report which basically said the writing was good, the story had merit but it needed a fair amount of work to get it ready. By this time I’d found out what the hero’s problem was: he’d been held captive in a country unnamed but curiously similar to the Lebanon – in short, I’d been seriously influenced by the British hostages there and the reader’s report justly said: get rid of the John McCarthy rip-off! The Roman ruins were there still but sadly the mosaic pavement was gone forever.
In 1993 I had a bright idea, ie that I would write a prequel called Death and the Oompah Band, and do it from Harriet’s point of view. I wrote the bare bones of the novel in three weeks – never before or since has anything like that happened! And I sent it off to another agent. She loved it. I sent the second in the series (formerly the first, if you remember – keep up at the back). She loved that too and took me on. I made Harriet younger and the two books got a fair few ‘close but no cigar’ rejections until the agent gave up on me and I stuck the books into a deep, dark drawer.
Scroll forward to somewhere like 2009. My first two Victorian mysteries had been published and I was wondering what to write next, so I fished out the prequel. Underneath all the inevitable rubbish I felt the story had legs as they say so I updated it – mobile phones, iPads, etc and sent it to my (new) agent. She liked it and we changed the title to Murder Fortissimo. Bingo!
The obvious next step was to take a long, hard look at the original story, Death and the Dragon Stone. Again, the underlying story seemed viable so I did the updating thing. This time the castle became an ancient but far more modest farmhouse, the grandparents also more modest – yeoman farmers and definitely no Russian royalty, while Sleeping Beauty was a feisty young teacher who had been working for Hollywood royalty instead. The Prince had now returned from an unnamed Far Eastern country where he’d undergone his traumas (no spoilers) and by now Harriet and Sam, fresh from their triumph in sorting out Murder Fortissimo, reappeared as the stars of the story. The Roman ruins were now integral to the story but no bits of mosaic ever turned up.
The Dragon Stone of the original drafts became the Angel Stone (a curiously shaped menhir or standing stone) in the published version and the title became A Crowded Coffin – which, I have to admit, is a title I’m rather proud of! This picture shows part of the avenue of stones at Carnac in Brittany. My fictitious stone is solitary and shaped very roughly like an angel. (Spooky place, Carnac, but fabulous to visit). So that’s how it was done:
‘Murder Fortissimo’ – written in three weeks and from conception to publication a mere 18 years.
‘A Crowded Coffin’ however, took a tad longer – from conception to publication a mere 39 years.
Interview: I’ve been visiting Susan Finlay’s interesting blog, so do go and read her interview with me: http://susansbooks37.wordpress.com