Where do you start to write a book? In reality, probably with procrastination but like other writers, I am forced into it because I have a contract with a publisher which specifies a delivery date for the manuscript. Of course, in my initial proposal I outlined my story with a beginning, middle and end. However, actually researching and writing it often changes everything and you are left with a mass of information wondering where to start.
With my latest book “The Earl and the Pharaoh”, I was most fortunate to find that the 4th Earl of Carnarvon (my character’s father) wrote a diary most days. Even better his handwriting was relatively easy to read.
Handwriting is very personal. It reflects our character and personality and connects our thoughts to the world in more ways than just the words we use. Whole industries have grown up around handwriting analysis in contrast to typing which makes the construction of each word uniform.
At some points of the 4th Earl’s life his handwriting clearly struggled. I could see he was not well and even if the thoughts and words reflected an excellent brain, his handwriting gave the game away: the fluidity and evenness of the previous pages was absent.
However, whilst his actual handwriting may have flowed, it was nevertheless something of an effort to work my way through the diaries. The rhythm of his sentences run differently to today’s syntax seeming more stilted and formal. Equally, I was conscious of needing to change the pace of what I was writing for the early part of the book in order to draw the reader into this period.
As I read, I typed up some of them along with some of his letters to make it easier to manage when I need to refer back to certain passages. Typing makes it much quicker to skim through the entries and I can obviously recheck and search for quotes with far greater speed.
Once I get absorbed in research, I get completely caught up in the subject, concentrating and happy, my head full of what I am reading in terms of both fact and emotion. On the CD player, at the back of my mind and thoughts, is familiar music: Mozart, Bach, Rutter, Mahler, Handel, Beethoven or lilting opera. It seeps into the corners of my head. Of course, my character, the 5th Earl, loved opera and played the piano rather well so it was part of his background as well.
Full of thought, I find a beginning and start to write. In this case, I knew I would begin in December 1874, with the prospect and hope of the birth of a baby. My character is a slight boy of 8 years old when he goes to London with his two other siblings (9 and 4 years old) to meet the newest Baby just arrived into their mother’s arms. But his world and that of his family falls apart when his mother dies. Taking my reader with me through this trauma, I hope they feel his tears and the hollowed-out emptiness of grief.
I think of writing in terms of sculpture, almost as if I am trying to form the character in a three-dimensional exercise, adding a little here, shaping a little there. It is not and cannot be perfect because I am writing it and part of the journey of reading a book is that the author and the reader form the character together and for each one it is subtly different, depending on their individual interpretations.
My own experience of deep loss is in there too: my sisters’ and my own devastation when our parents died too early makes its way into my words. My youngest sister was just 12 when our father died so I tried to remember how she felt although it was almost too painful to go there. Losing a parent too early happens to many of us and our memories of them are shaped and altered over time so that the people we loved and hugged, and who are part of who we are, becomes a fractionally different version of themselves as time moves on.
I learnt so much from writing about the 5th Earl. Notwithstanding the prejudices about Victorian parenting, the 4th Earl stepped back from a successful career in politics to look after his young family.
For all his well-meaning efforts and erudite approach, his son had a somewhat more dilettante approach to schooling and education. His letters from school were clearly carefully crafted in an effort to deflect his father’s attention from less than encouraging school reports.
They did make me cry with laughter – we have all been there, either writing them or receiving such missives. I wonder with this will continue or whether such letters will just become a series of emojis… I hope not..