Early in my writing career, I learnt that ideas come from anywhere, in any shape or form, expected or unexpected, and that I must trust my instincts. A memory of something disturbing in my own childhood sparked my very first book, The Separation. That book was deeply felt, written from the heart, and demanded an act of blind faith that I could do it. I had no idea I was going to write about a tea planter’s wife faced with a terrible choice as a follow up. It was my late mother-in-law chatting to my husband about racial prejudice in India, where she lived as a child, that set me off. It happened absolutely by chance. Had I been in another room at the time, I may not have heard what she said. But I’m glad I did hear because that book sold nearly 500,000 copies in the UK alone and has been published in approximately twenty-eight languages.
So, I really like to pay attention to even the slightest seed of an idea. My new novel, The Tuscan Contessa, started life as a feeling inside me. I’d written six novels set in the exotic landscapes of South East Asia and I was feeling the need to do something different, whether it be a change of location or change of setting. Like most authors, I know it’s crucial to keep my writing fresh and at the back of my mind I’d started wondering about Italy. It was only after I twisted my ankle on a family holiday in Northern Tuscany that the idea of setting a book in Tuscany during WW2 took hold. While I was laid up, my foot and ankle wrapped in ice, I began reading some material the owners of the villa had left for us, including a short history of the region. That was it. In the space of one day I became completely enthralled. Again, it happened by chance. Had I not twisted my ankle I doubt I’d have read so much. I was on holiday, after all.
Over the following twelve months I was to return to Italy three more times, to research exact settings and to talk to people. So much had happened there and my task was to narrow it down into something usable. While the external driver of the story would be how the Tuscan people survived the horrors of occupation under the Nazis, their own personal dramas – their loves, their losses, their hopes, their fears – would be at the heart of the book. Often, it’s not what you include in a book that makes it work, it’s what you leave out. There must be enough to root the book in time and place but, ultimately, it’s the story about people that resonates with readers. And it’s this marrying of an external conflict that has its own momentum with the intensely personal experience of my characters that I enjoy.
Everything is grist for the mill including personal tragedy. The loss of my teenage son planted a depth of experience inside me that I do call upon as I write. I think it was Matt Haig who once said something along the lines of: it’s not that you should write what you know, it’s about writing what you feel. And so, any new story idea, even in its infancy, must contain the possibility of an emotional or moving experience for the reader. My books must have a feeling heart.
There’s so much I need to think about when exploring a new idea. Is the premise book worthy for a start? Sometimes I only find out that it’s not when I start writing and then it’s either dump it and move on to something new or try to work out if there’s a way to save it. Most writers have experienced that at some time or another. I had to cut forty-nine thousand words and rewrite The Silk Merchant’s Daughter to save its life.
I’m at that stage now where I’ve written the first draft of my eighth book, the follow up to The Tuscan Contessa. While I wait for my edits, I’m exploring where I might go next and what my story idea might be. Sometimes it feels impossible at this stage. Right now, I only have half an idea. I’m feeling as if I’ll never be able to work out what to write. This happens to me nearly every time. I doubt I can do it. I doubt it will work. I worry that I’ll ever be able to write another novel again. I feel sick with nerves.
But I must force myself to set aside all those doubts and fears and keep reading the dozens of research books I’ve bought until something goes ping! I think it was Margaret Atwood who said it’s the research that often throws up an idea. I agree but sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs. All I can do is trust that I will come up with more. So, it’s back to relying on my instincts. There’s nothing worse that starting a book and feeling that you’ve made a mistake but, for me, analysis of what will work plays only a small part. Instinct plays a much larger part and I’ve learnt to trust my instincts, not only for the original idea but also for further ideas as I write. If something comes into my head, I reckon there’s a reason for it, so I use it. It can be deleted later if I change my mind, but I do listen to my inner voice, keep my eyes and ears open for chance encounters, and try not to get bogged down in the slough of despondency. For me that’s probably the most important part of being a writer.
(c) Dinah Jefferies
About The Tuscan Contessa:
A sweeping new novel from the number one Sunday Times bestselling author of The Tea Planter’s Wife.
In 1943, Contessa Sofia de’ Corsi’s peaceful Tuscan villa among the olive groves is upturned by the sudden arrival of German soldiers. Desperate to fight back, she agrees to shelter a wounded British radio engineer in her home, keeping him hidden from her husband Lorenzo – knowing that she is putting all of their lives at risk.
When Maxine, an Italian-American working for the resistance, arrives on Sofia’s doorstep, the pair forge an uneasy alliance. Feisty, independent Maxine promised herself never to fall in love. But when she meets a handsome partisan named Marco, she realizes it’s a promise she can’t keep…
Before long, the two women find themselves entangled in a dangerous game with the Nazis. Will they be discovered? And will they both be able to save the ones they love?
Order your copy online here.