Like most, the pandemic has thrown out my routine, particularly in getting to grips with my novel-in-progress. Still in progress. Often unprogressing. I went back to basics and considered “the spark”; could it be that it was missing?
The spark first ignited in me in my teens, although I’d been writing stories since pre-school. Why did I write my first novel? “Chantilly Dawns” was born of a deep sense of loss, transferred to the protagonist Marcel Dessaint. The more I explored his emotions, fears and desire the more his story formed around him. The people he was drawn to were also formed easily by him; just as our own personality dictates our circle of friends and relationships with family.
Next came “Nero – The Last Caesar”, no creation needed. The spark there was Nero himself and the emotion connecting me was one of injustice. History had dealt him an undeserved bad name that he hadn’t earned in his lifetime; all I had to do was report the facts and give him the voice to defend himself.
Pete Allen had been around for longer than his appearance in my next book, “Gala Day”. A playful caricature of an old acquaintance, he’d initially popped up in a short story to satisfy the real-life Pete’s denied demand to be in “Chantilly Dawns”. You can’t live your life with pen and notebook perpetually in hand without someone asking ‘What’yer writing, can I be in it?’
“Gala Day” was born not from a character but from the desire to write an enjoyable ‘Dick Francis’. Not that I didn’t enjoy the Francis thrillers, but I wanted one set in my world – Flat racing, and a hero who wasn’t brave and who didn’t just brush off blows. Pete Allen was that ‘every man’ and leant himself perfectly to the role of protagonist in an action thriller.
There was someone else in there, too; a shadow haunting from a distance, no more than a mere passing mention from a past playing little part on the “Gala Day” inhabitants. Dominic Marchant was already so familiar to me and so strongly a part of my life that he couldn’t help but seep into my writing. He’d appeared in my head, yet another imaginary friend lodging in my mind, toward the end of “Chantilly Dawns”, so we went way back, he and I.
All he lacked was a story; but missing Marcel and wondering what happened next soon led me to Dominic’s journey. I knew what he was like; finding out why was the real trigger. Also in “Chantilly Dawns” had been the fleeting bit-player Nick Marchant, a perfect blank canvas to take responsibility as Dominic’s father. No longer a blank canvas, the shaping of Dominic became the shaping of Nick and for a long time they each vied for the main protagonist role in “Sainte Bastien”, novel number four. Deciding on which would be the focus, or how to share that focus, took longer than actually writing the book.
Those were the characters who had haunted me from my teens; so when they had been given life and gone out into the world I found myself for the very first time without an imaginary friend. The day I completed my last novel, “Sainte Bastien”, I needed to write my next; but I was at a loss. I had no protagonist and therefore no plot.
I waited to see who might arrive, but I’m not noted for my patience. I began to fish. I revisited Chris and Terry from “Gala Day” and had a half idea for their future. It wasn’t quite enough for the drama of a novel. I toyed with the factual drama of my time in a betting office and that worked so well; but it lacked horses. And I loved the little kid in the movie “Horton Hears A Hoo” and borrowed his attitude and style for teenager Jack, who came from nowhere, a new imaginary friend at long last. As he developed, without an obvious plot, so the possibility of tying him in with Chris and Terry emerged. And who were his family? The betting office resurfaced and with it, its plot. So “Grey Motive” tentatively began, not quite character driven, three protagonists sharing centre stage, a change of direction for me as a novelist.
Previous protagonists had had to deal with their problem on their own. With “Grey Motive” came crime and with it the police. I’d not considered them, but you can’t have a significant theft without a significant police enquiry and my stage was suddenly invaded by two detectives. Given that they entered unexpectedly of their own volition, they have become my unexpected spark, my driving force. I’m attached to Jack, but not in the same way I am to Marcel, Pete and Dominic. For a while, that concerned me. But DI Les de Freitas has instantly wormed his way into my heart. He has restored the status quo and “Grey Motive” is progressing safely as a result.
Not quite saved by the cavalry, just saved by the Thames Valley police force.
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