Monday, 8 July 2019
The Angel in the Marble
Like all writers, I’m often asked where I find the ideas for my books.
“Sainsbury’s,” I usually reply.
Others have a less flippant answer. I once heard an author quote Michelangelo; ‘I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free’. I snorted at his pretension, even though I had a sneaking admiration for anyone who can claim to see the finished work at the outset. I’d love to have an Epiphany where a complete novel bursts into my head. My stories have small beginnings. I pick at one idea, and in time may encounter another that multiplies the first; a kind of writerly serendipity. Sometimes I can’t even remember the sequence.
Unusually, I can remember the exact moment when Draca was born. A friend had asked me to crew for him in his sailing boat, and one evening we’d anchored in one of the great natural harbours that open into the English Channel. It was a wild, ethereal place, filled with the sunset screaming of gulls, and we sat in his cockpit, sipping whisky and telling stories with the comfortable ease of long friendship. The only sign of life was the squat tower of a Saxon church, far away over the water.
Around us the long summer evening faded from pink to peach to grey, and the ebbing tide exposed the bones of dead ships, poking through the mud. It was a twilight so atmospheric that it had to become the setting for a story, and the story would have to feature boats and people who lived at the sea’s edge.
I’ve learned that boats have characters. That may sound fanciful, but several more experienced sailors have told me that at first, a boat simply has characteristics, such as her best points of sailing, or the way she lifts and slews to a wave. In time, this basic understanding grows until you recognise her moods; the boat becomes a friend who talks to you, and her language is the feel of the tiller in your hand and the singing of the wind through her rigging. When the ship is sailing well, she feels happy, and when she’s shoulder-charging the waves into a storm, she can be belligerent. Treat her badly, and she can be as angry as a wronged lover. I sense that the older the boat, the more her idiosyncrasies, so why not have a boat as a character?
2 x 2 = 5. Multiplied ideas acquire a momentum. The next time we anchored, in an equally desolate place, I stared at the ribs of another rotted ship and wondered what human stories they could tell; heroism at Dunkirk or the Normandy beaches? Exotic trading voyages in the days of Empire? Those bones might lay on other bones, in ever deeper layers of history, back to a time even before that Saxon church was built. After all, Vikings raided this coast in the 9th Century, exploiting their sea power in their war against Alfred.
That took me off at a tangent. So much of plotting a novel is asking endless ‘what if’ questions. What if an artefact exposed by the mud could be evil? An object that has been central to atrocity, perhaps? People are rarely wholly good or wholly bad; most heroes are flawed, many villains have some redeeming aspect. Humanity implies imperfection. But an object? Britain's equivalent of a blood-soaked Aztec god?
I began to see my angel in the marble. Except that it was a gargoyle. Or a dragon. Very ugly. With a story to tell.