When I finished The Botticelli Trilogy, I had a few months worrying about what I was going to do next before the idea for a novel about Filippo Lippi and Cosimo de’ Medici was suggested to me. I thought it would be quick and short compared to the others, but it must be five years now since I started. About a year ago I thought I was close to finishing but then I decided to go the last inch, not realising how long an inch can take.
Last week the first fifth of the text went to the editor, which looks to me like closure, at least the first stage of it. And when she phoned the next day to put my mind at rest by telling me she was enjoying it, I thought – and please forgive the hubris – but I thought, ‘and why wouldn’t you?’ How’s that for arrogance? Except, when your self esteem has all the height and bounce of a flattened slug, that kind of thought is real gold because it is the voice of confidence. If I like my book, anyone else liking it is a bonus; that’s the stage I’ve come to and why I know I’ve just about finished. Something could happen (or not) in the last hundred pages I have to read through with my Best Beloved, but I feel confident about that too. I can smell the finish line.
In the summer I read Steven Pressfield’s latest motivator for writers called Do the Work. I was mulling the next story but keeping a barge pole between me and it, not wishing to be distracted from the task in hand. I was also chary of what ‘research’ can do to your working space. Before I took up the Lippi story I’d dipped into the 16th/17th century and I’d paddled in medieval France. Now just a gentle enquiry somehow spawns a shelf-load of books, but my shelves were full with the Renaissance. To accommodate the fruit of these two sorties, I’d created a row of books on top of the bookshelves, and a freestanding row behind the usual pile of pending paper and techno must-haves that somehow never get out of their box.
In my L-shaped room, I am stuffed. I am grid-locked by piles of who-knows-what and have to walk sideways to reach my desk. There is space for no more books and the teddies must surely go. How did I accumulate so many teddy bears? Why? Of course, when I say ‘go’, I mean to the attic. Big Ted is 60 years old and I’m putting him in the attic, wrapped in a plastic sack, only for his safety: here he just collects dust.
Getting a Kindle has helped, and if I’m buying books and there is a reasonably priced Kindle edition (i.e. not something only 5op cheaper than the book), I’ll get it. I’m also getting back into the library habit, reading at the Sackler Classics Library rather than here, which I would do more often if the chairs weren’t crippling. (I shall do a piece soon on the dichotomy between interior and exterior architecture, how something that looks so fine on the outside is just horrible on the inside).
Nevertheless, the books are beginning to arrive for the new topic. For, in reading Pressfield’s book, I got to the main message fairly early on, which is START NOW. So I did, months before I’d finished on the Lippi. The trick worked and eagerness to get on with the new cut through the nervous procrastination, the fear of finishing the old.
And so, for the fifth time in forty years, here we go again. It’s what idiots call ‘thinking up a story’. ‘How did you think that one up, then?’ Well, I didn’t. I tracked it, I quested for it, I followed its footprints through the forest, my ears growing ever more acute, listening for that whisper of an idea, interpreting it when it came. And then you glimpse the hart caught by a shaft of sunlight in the clearing; one step towards it and it’s gone. But at least you know it’s there, it exists.
Now I’m at that blissful stage where the universe becomes your puppy dog and presents you with gifts each bright morning. A trip into Gloucestershire to buy a cooker and ideas are springing up like mushrooms. A philosophical retreat ends up with quite a profound conversation with a tree, who was auditioning for a part as a character. A glimpse of someone limping as I passed through Moreton-in-the-Marsh in the car and my hero has his sidekick. And then salmon leaping suddenly, off every page of every book I browsed in the library on one particular morning.
How do stories form? It’s a great question, and I’ll hazard a guess next time. For now it’s back to John North’s hefty and wide-girthed Stonehenge – neolithic man and the cosmos. And no, I’m not going to be writing about Stonehenge.