This week I find myself in that curiously painful place which novelists inhabit when they have just handed in their latest novel, in my case The Mandrake’s Tale, to their publishers and are embarking on research for the next book.
For me, writing a novel is a bit like being the captain of a very small boat sailing across vast ocean, with a strange and motley crew with whom you will have to work, sleep and live with twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week until you finally reach harbour. When you first board your new vessel, you have to learn how to operate that particular craft – no two are alike. You have to discover by trial and error which ropes and sails you can use to keep this particular craft speeding along; where the leaks are going to develop and what bits might break off. But most of all you have to learn about your new crew, their personalities and habits; what will make that individual character lose his temper, and how they will relate to each other. Will there be any ship-romances or will they try to murder each other or shove each other (or me) overboard and out of the story? As captain you have to figure out how to make each of your characters do the work that is needed to keep the craft afloat. And by the time the novel is finished you come to know these characters better than your own family.
Then suddenly you are in the harbour, the voyage is over and you are being whisked off to a brand new boat. You watch a new set of crew come on board and stow their luggage in the tiny cabin. Some of them glower at you and you know they are thinking – you may be the author, but you needn’t think I’m going to cooperate with you. Other characters sidle on board and are so shy they won’t even look you in the eye or tell you their names, but somehow you’ve got get to know them. You miss the old crew dreadfully with all their faults.
Yes, you’ll meet them again from time to time. Your editor will want you to make changes to the novel you’ve handed in. Readers will write to you about the characters and you’ll talk about them to Readers Groups and at Festivals, but it won’t be the same, because you are sailing with new characters now.
But one thing which has made this transition a bit easier was being invited out to Amsterdam by my publishers The Flying Dutchman for the launch of the Dutch translation of The Owl Killers. Apart from the fantastic hospitality I received there, it was great to go back because it was many years ago in Amsterdam that I stumbled across one of the ideas that was later to inspire The Owl Killers. In 1345, a man on his death bed vomited the host which was miraculous retrieved from the fire. This became known as the Amsterdam Miracle, and even today the miracle is commemorated by an annual procession in March called the Stille Omgang (silent procession) in which about 8,000 people take part. This amazing story stayed in my mind for many years and if you’ve read The Owl Killers you will be able recognise the story element it inspired in the novel, though with very different results.
Strangely enough, on my final afternoon in Amsterdam a chance remark over lunch by the director of The Flying Dutchman, reminded me of an English legend I had researched years ago, and I suddenly realised I had just discovered the plot of a new novel. It is so exciting that tiny ideas collected years apart and squirreled away can unexpectedly come together and ignite into a story. So thank you again, Amsterdam!
And to all of you who are reading or have read The Owl Killers, can I say a huge, huge thank you for selecting it for your book this week and for giving up your time to read it. I hope you enjoy it.