Tonight I’m delighted to have the chance to talk to you about one of my favourite mysteries. It’s something that takes my daily work out of the ordinary into an exciting, almost magical world… A mystery that regularly gives me goosebumps… One that I’ll never understand completely, though it is very real… The mystery of the creative process.
First, a little background about how I came to indulge regularly in this intrigue for my daily work. Next, we’ll explore the whole creative process from beginning to epilogue – and for me, writing a novel does have certain similarities to reading one. Finally, and this is most fascinating to me – we’ll take a look at the mystery and magic that go along with creating something.
First a bit of background. I’ve written three books so far, leaving out an academic textbook, over a period of eight years. My background is in the world of book publishing, with a brief foray into magazine journalism, so that’s where my books are set. And my most intense experiences with book publishing were in Boston and London, so those are the locations for my mysteries. I attended a course on book publishing in Boston immediately after graduating from college – the unforgettable summer when Charles and Diana married. That same summer I was fortunate enough to land a job with a Boston publisher of fine books, David Godine. David Godine is the example of a bibliophile, collector, fine hand printer and book publisher who became my series hero, Alex Plumtree – though Alex’s character is that of my hero of a husband, Bill. To make enough to pay the rent, I took another part-time job at Addison-Wesley, a suburban Boston academic publisher.
When my boyfriend, who was willing to move to Boston so we could see each other occasionally, got a job with a Boston company, it was on the condition that he move to London. So he asked me to marry him and move across the pond. Naturally, I accepted. Addison-Wesley became convinced that they needed another editorial assistant in their London office, and so I came to work in book publishing in Bedford Square, the publishers’ square in London. This is where Alex Plumtree presides over Plumtree Press in my novels – near the British Museum and rare book dealers in Bloomsbury. Alex Plumtree lives in a town called Chorleywood, in Hertfordshire, where my husband and I lived for five years. Alex Plumtree’s house, The Orchard, is a farmhouse at the end of our country lane.
When Addison-Wesley moved out of Bedford Square to an inconvenient corner of Berkshire, I left them to write for a magazine. The magazine company was a few tube stops to the north and east of Bloomsbury in a neighbourhood called Clerkenwell. Clerkenwell used to be a publishing and printing center, and the home of Artful Dodger and Fagin in Oliver Twist, for you Dickens fans. It became the setting for my third book, Unprintable. Clerkenwell also happens to be a hotbed for Socialism and Communism, so it was convenient political background for both Unbound and Unprintable.
Through many mysterious circumstances, long after we’d moved back from London and started a family, I met someone whose sister was an editor in New York. When after a year of pushing a stroller next to my friend daily I sheepishly admitted I’d written a novel, her sister was willing to recommend me to an agent. That’s how I got started. Lots of – coincidences?? Probably not. Lots of things just barely happened to happen, completely unintentionally.
But before those happy moments of serendipity and publication came endless attempts at writing fiction, from the sixth grade on. With those attempts came endless rejections. I was even rejected three times from a creative writing class at Dartmouth on the basis of my writing sample. But something compelled me to keep trying. I had an urge to write. It isn’t a logical career to pursue; the road is long, hard, unpredictable and rarely successful.
Ask my soul-mates in my writer’s group: one of them has gotten up at four in the morning for years to write before she goes to work. Another writes all morning, every day. Another manages a household virtually by herself with two small children, writing whenever she can. She’s in the process of her third novel at the moment. I’m confident that they’ll all be published very soon, but they write because they love it – not only for publication.
When the urge to create is that irresistible, well, then you go on to the next stage: giving yourself up to the joyful, mysterious process of creating something.
But enough of Alex Plumtree’s path into print, and on to the creative process. When I think about how the magic of creativity works, it occurs to me that it’s much like reading a novel. The first rush of excitement comes from a vague but inspiring jacket blurb, promising thrills and chills. If the novel is any good at all, the beginning lures you in to a story that you can’t put down. It pulls you on, page by page.
Then, at some point, real life intervenes – it’s Monday morning, you have to go back to work. The baby wakes up from its nap and you’re on duty again. Or those bills just have to be paid before another day goes by. You put the book down.
When you pick it up again, somehow you notice that the characters aren’t quite as compelling, or maybe for the first time you notice that the author uses the word “strange” every few pages. Maybe the author seems to be using his “One Word A Day Calendar To A Greater Vocabulary,” throwing in unnecessary and pretentious words. Perhaps the action slows a bit for other necessary parts of the story. You begin to slog through the pages, turning them slowly, trusting that the novel will get better. Perhaps now you’re not so unwilling to put the book down and go to bed at ten o’clock. It may sit on your nightstand for a week.
But you’ve invested time in this thing already, and eventually you pick it up again. You get past the slow part and once again become lost in the overall drama of the work. At the end you sigh. Why did it have to end so soon? What happened to the characters the next week? Will they be happy together forever? Will there be another war? If only we knew more… Still, there is a sense of satisfaction, a sense of pleasure in arriving at the end. You have mastered the story; it is yours forever.
For me, writing a book is very much like the process I’ve just described. At first, there is a vague but incredibly exciting idea – something that gives me goosebumps. The foggiest germ of an idea with endless possibilities… deliciously spooky, how intriguing…This is the jacket blurb stage. I lie awake at night, dreaming of what fascinating thing could happen next, letting my character explore strange and challenging environments. The ideas arrive capriciously, like that jacket blurb that hits you full-force with its originality from the back cover or jacket flap. A series of ideas is like running your eyes along the shelf at a bookshop. A million temptations, but which one to choose first?
The idea behind my first novel came shortly after my first child was born. I was momentarily taken aback by the realization that my life as I’d known it was over. As I nursed her in our Massachusetts home, perhaps as a survival mechanism I dreamed of the novel I’d always dreamed of writing, pulling in all the things I loved…book publishing, London, sailing, Nantucket Island, international intrigue, honor, nobility. These became the germ of Unsolicited, my first novel. I was completely caught up in the idea that came in those contemplative days; it carried me through times I otherwise wouldn’t have known how to handle.
The ideas for my other novels came just as miraculously. Unbound, my second novel, came when I laid down for an afternoon rest, nine months pregnant, after putting our toddler down for a nap. I’ve heard others writers say, by the way, that those are the magic moments for them – those fleeting instants between waking and sleeping. My third book, Unprintable, came on a lunchtime walk in Clerkenwell twelve years ago, and the fourth, Untitled (which is the actual title) came from a newspaper article in the Times of London four years ago. I’d like to talk a bit more, in a moment, about the amazing nature of these bolts from the blue.
But on with the process itself. Next comes the “getting enthralled stage,” the part where the book pulls you further into the plot and characters, and you can’t set it down. When my husband insisted that I take the time to try to write my first book, I revelled in laying out the cast of characters, plotting their actions and very human motivations – the need to keep secrets, the need to win, the need to survive. I was sucked into the book; ideas for settings and scenes flowed endlessly, and I anticipated those two or three hours each day with great excitement. The book became the part of me that survived my daily responsibilities. We’ve probably all felt that by the time we’ve done all we’re supposed to do for others, there’s nothing left of us; no life of our own.
Unsolicited – its characters, settings, and plot twists – became important to me as that place where my inner life could thrive.
Inevitably, even in that first book, there came the slow bits. Although the first book was just an exploration, an adventure, with no contract and no deadline, the odd moment came when I just wasn’t sure what Alex Plumtree, my character, should do next. I wrote boring pages and then deleted them; gradually I learned to recognize the boring parts and leave them out altogether. But I’ve learned since that in the process of writing a book, you do eventually get to the point where your ideas are the framework, but you still have the finish work to do. And that finish work is the most time-consuming part. The structure is solid, but there’s sheet-rocking and taping and texturing and painting. So the slog begins, and you write through scenes that bore even you, the writer. They must be ripped out to allow a more exciting job of decorating. Eventually, you know the real thing when you see it, and you know you’re through the slog. This whole plodding process usually hits at the halfway point for me, or just past.
The excitement returns when you can see the whole novel coming full circle, and find that it’s working just right. There’s the thrill of seeing the whole thing laid out in front of you, the complete story, the many long threads woven together into a complex and intriguing fabric. It becomes exciting to work on it again; you remember that this really was a good idea. You remember why you had goosebumps at the beginning. The desire to make the story whole is compelling. It almost has a life of its own, like its characters. At last you can sigh that the work is complete, the product satisfactory. You put the novel down and start thinking jacket blurb thoughts about the next one in more detail – though years ahead of time, those vague ideas shape themselves into story ideas before I’m ready to deal with them.
That completes my analogy to reading a novel. But that’s just the process. What about the MAGIC of really good stories? That feeling you get reading when you’re alone at night that someone might just climb in through the window, or that true love could strike at any time, or the belief that dinosaurs really might come back and chase humans, or Glenn Close might really be lying in your bathtub waiting to pull you in and strangle you? As illogical as it is, books have the power to do that to us. After reading Jaws by Peter Benchley as a teenager, I had an irrational fear for years about swimming in a pool. I was certain a shark would suddenly appear and gobble me up from below. My conscious mind knew better, but sometimes it’s overridden by the less rational side.
It’s that MAGIC that is the most exciting part of writing, as well as reading, a book. It’s this aspect of creativity that I’ve been most looking forward to sharing with you tonight. Have you ever had one of those eerie feelings that you’ve been somewhere before? Or that you were receiving a message from above? Or that certain things just couldn’t have happened by coincidence? Like Wag the Dog coming out just before the recent Iraqi crisis, or Primary Colors simultaneous with Monica Lewinsky. It’s impossible to believe that there isn’t some greater power orchestrating all of this.
The magical process I’m about to describe isn’t frightening or spooky to me. I have no trouble acknowledging a benevolent Creator who would do something like this. The whole mysterious process is exciting and fun, loving and encouraging. But to say the least, it’s awe-inspiring. It makes starting a book a bit like climbing on a roller coaster; you strap in and wait to see where it’ll take you. If you remember the vague jacket blurb stage of excitement, when you can hardly wait to get started on that story that sounds so appealing, that’s the stage when I start doing research. All of my books have required extensive historical research. My first book, Unsolicited (and it was), was about the children evacuated from London during the Blitz. The second book, Unbound, was about rare books and the Illuminati, the shadowy secret society. The third, Unprintable, was about printing and English politics. The fourth, in process, Untitled, is about a secret bibliophile’s club in England called the Roxburghe Club – Dibdin, the name of its first secretary, in my fictionalised version. I really go full-bore on the research, because what I enjoy about books is not only the fun of the story but learning something – and helping my readers learn something. As long as I’m a fiction junkie, I can learn something along the way. I’ve also come to believe that the best plots take root from real-life issues, lending a sense of real danger and urgency to the story.
In the process of writing each book, something amazing happened when I hit the library to do research. The germ of an idea, the jacket blurb, was floating around in my mind, and the historical facts I found fit so perfectly that time and again I had the feeling the facts had been created for the story. I realise this sounds like a very self-centred interpretation of history, particularly when you consider the horrible things people have endured. Believe me, I do see the wider context. But when you are so intimately acquainted with a story idea, you can hardly believe that actual facts exist to support it – after all, the idea itself came as a bolt from the blue. For instance, when researching the child evacuees from London in World War II, I found articles about children placed with aristocratic American families – children so young they couldn’t remember their real parents. Fees were paid to transport the evacuated children, often paid by the host American or Australian families. One article mentioned that some children were eventually adopted by the host families, and there it was: PROOF for my plot. The plot of Unsolicited had a corrupt charity official taking money from childless Americans for the children, who were “sold” to the parents. The children were eventually told their real, English parents had died in the War. I had to be careful, of course, not to detract from the noble effort made to save these children’s lives by the real charity that evacuated the real children, and inserted a note to that effect. But it could have happened…
Then there was research into secret societies and the Illuminati for Unbound. The librarian at the Longmont Library had her doubts about me when I requested her help in finding information on secret societies including the Illuminati. When I saw her whispering to another librarian, both of them looking suspiciously in my direction, I made a point of explaining that I didn’t want to join one of these groups – I was merely writing a novel. I thought she looked quite relieved. At any rate, I needed a logical reason for one of these secret societies to be altering modern textbooks for their own political purposes. That reason was placed on a silver platter and handed to me on my first foray into the subject. It turned out that since the eighteenth century, some of these secret societies have advocated the abolition of royalty and all traces of nationalism, including national government. It practically jumped out at me that from Voltaire and the enlightenment (thus Illuminati) onward, these people had been working toward a world government. There was a huge amount of evidence for this conspiracy theory, including a modern-day book by Gary Kah pointing it all out in lurid detail – that the Rockefeller family had subsidized texts handed out in public schools across the country, trying to persuade children that national governments were evil. I’ve had fans tell me that they actually believe this is the case, and have been meeting in groups to discuss the book I used for research. I feel as if I’ve stumbled onto an undercurrent of American politics, which is a bit scary, somehow. Whether you believe all this is true or not, it does make for an interesting plot!
By the way, all that research into the one world government idea proved to be excellent fodder for the next book’s plot, Unprintable. Unprintable is about English politics, which has a great deal to do with the European Union. The European Union is doing exactly what the Illuminati wanted – removing sovereignty from the European nations, and handing it over to the European Parliament. I feel as if I’ve discovered an undercurrent in WORLD politics this time, which is even more scary. Did you know that British prime ministers have gradually made the European Union a reality without the approval of the English people? First it was the Common Market, which mutated into the EEC. Somehow that grew into the Maastricht Treaty, and before people knew it they were in the European Union. There was no vote, nor was there unanimous approval. Suddenly English citizens found that the European Court in Strasbourg was overriding the decisions of the English courts…and national sovereignty was a joke. And I’ve found myself on the E-mail list of the Campaign for an Independent Britain, which appears in Unprintable. I’m hoping no shadowy figures appear with bulges under their coats outside my front door. Talk about conspiracy theories…
Those are a couple of examples of times when it felt as if the original idea fit so perfectly with historical fact that it gave me the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes I almost had the feeling that someone had slipped those things onto the library shelves just for the sake of my story. Needless to say, going to the library is anything but a chore.
But that’s not all the magic: there’s more. On my recently finished third book, Unprintable, the slogging stage seemed prolonged. Oddly, when I’d written to the end of my detailed synopsis, the book didn’t feel done – and it hadn’t magically come out to twenty chapters of twenty pages each the way my other books had. I’d accepted as a matter of fact that when there were twenty chapters of twenty pages each, I was done and the book was right. The first two books had just worked out that way. I ended up doing an extensive rewrite of Unprintable, which fortunately did come out just right. When I felt it was finally done, after tinkering with the last half a good deal, one evening I checked. It had come out to the twenty-twenty rule.
Coincidence? Mystery? Magic? Blessing? Whatever you call it, it’s intriguing.
There is a scary aspect to all this: I can’t control these bolts from the blue, these bits of magic or blessing. I am keenly aware that they come as gifts, unasked for, with far more wisdom than I possess. Will the day come when they stop? What if the gifts aren’t given for the next book – no vague but thrilling ideas to begin with? No historical facts waiting in the library to magically buttress the fiction? No twenty-twenty confirmation that I’m done?
Having marvelled at the mystery of creativity for years now, I was fascinated to find it at the root of a mystery novel by one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth George. In her novel entitled For the Sake of Elena, one of the characters finds herself nearly berserk with fear and worry that she has lost her creativity – the magic part of her life as a painter. Elizabeth George acknowledged, by putting this character at the center of the plot, that the loss of this creative spark would be enough to destroy someone who had once had it.
My husband, the noble role model for my series protagonist Alex Plumtree’s personality, tells me not to worry. He believes that it’s not all as mysterious and supernatural as I think, that the ideas grow out of some deeply buried knowledge of historical fact, and that it’s my self-editing instinct that hones the books until they’re twenty pages of twenty chapters each. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like something completely outside of me that’s poured in. I just write it down.
Whatever the nature of this mystery, one thing is certain: it is very real. Is there something about which you are passionate, something that happens almost automatically for you and seems to work out just right every time? Something that makes you feel completely alive and more you than you’ve ever felt before? Pursue it. Create it. Mysterious things can happen.