The Lodger was released one year ago. Like any parent on the birthday of its firstborn, I’ve been reminiscing about the journey thus far: the long gestation, compared by a writer friend to an elephant pregnancy; the heady months following publication. Foremost in my mind has been the moment of conception: the events leading to the realisation that here was the germ of a story worth developing.
The Lodger is a biographical novel about little-known writer Dorothy Richardson. Like many of the world’s best discoveries, I stumbled on her accidentally: I found a review of one of her books by Virginia Woolf, in which Virginia credited her with inventing ‘the psychological sentence of the feminine gender.’
This was the beginning of an enduring obsession. Dorothy’s life was as remarkable as her writing; she smashed nearly every boundary and taboo – social, sexual and literary. The more I learnt, the more I felt her story needed to be unearthed and retold. And this is how The Lodger was born.
Thinking about my book’s conception made me wonder what sparked the inspiration for other novels, and I asked my fellow Prime Writers to share their Eureka moments.
“While visiting family in Florida, I found a newspaper article about a ‘spectacle lynching’ in 1935,” explains Vanessa Lafaye, author of Summertime. “It captured my imagination and I decided to dramatize it. But when I began research, the trail led Islamorada, the Labor Day hurricane and the veterans, and I realised this was my story.”
News stories provided the catalyst for Terry Stiastny and Claire Fuller. “I still have the Telegraph cutting,” Terry says. “An MI6 trainee left a laptop in a bar and police and security services went to great lengths trying to find it. I wondered what it must be like to be the hapless agent who’d had too good a night out and lost their office computer, only to find the government bearing down on you.” The result was Acts of Omission.
“A news article from 2011 got Our Endless Numbered Days going,” writes Claire. “A boy in Berlin claimed to have lived in the forests with his father for the previous five years and his father had died in an accident. It was discovered that he had run away from home and his story was invented. But it provoked those ‘what if’ questions that writers love: What if he had been living in the forest? Who would have taken him? How would he have survived? And, what happened there to make him return to civilisation?”
The inspiration for Fanny Blake’s House of Dreams came from hearing a radio interviewee discuss his late mother. “He said we never know our parents properly and we aren’t interested in them until much later. The part of their lives that will remain unknown to us is the part that makes them the people they are, and that’s what makes us who we are. I thought that was a terrific concept for a novel.”
Sometimes, it takes a combination of factors to set an author’s imagination alight. In the case of Martine Bailey and The Penny Heart, it was walking along miles of pristine New Zealand beach wondering what eighteenth century life must have been like there, as well as discovering Penny Heart convict tokens, “English pennies engraved with messages by convicts about to embark on the Georgian equivalent of a trip to the moon.”
Alison Layland was inspired by a book she had translated on Croatia, and by the Festival at the Edge storytelling festival, “which made me realise I could have a storyteller as my main character and combine real-world and fantastical elements.”
For S.D. Sykes and Melissa Bailey, an image lit the spark. S.D. saw an illustration of the Red-Backed Shrike in the Collins Book of British Wildlife. “It looks an inoffensive bird. But it impales its victims onto thorn bushes – and returns to eat them! With my love of the macabre, this is manna from heaven. I’ve always known I would write a book using this little monster’s common name – The Butcher Bird.”
Melissa says “An image kept entering my mind: a white-haired woman standing on an island, a lighthouse behind her. I knew that her hair had turned white prematurely with grief. Slowly, Beyond the Sea unfurled: the woman became Freya, who had lost her husband and son at sea, and returned to the Hebrides where they’d spent so much time…”
Jane Lythell’s The Lie of You was inspired by the actions of a hostile colleague. “She had been undermining me and I was worried about the security of my job. While I was swimming on holiday, a speech popped fully formed into my head: a woman was speaking about another who seemed to have it all. It became the beginning of The Lie of You, in which one woman’s jealousy for a colleague tips into obsession.”
Friends’ comments ignited Helen MacKinven’s and Cari Rosen’s ker-ching moments: “My friend suggested using autobiographical material from my MLitt Creative Writing course for a longer story about growing up in the 1980s in a working class Scottish town,” explains Helen. “The result was Talk of the Toun.”
Cari says “I wrote a Facebook post about something my toddler had done and a friend replied, ‘I love your updates. When are you publishing?’ I’d spent years wanting to write a book and thanks to that remark ended up writing , the one I’d never even thought about.”
To conclude, I discovered that the ways in which these novels came into being are as rich and varied as the novels themselves. The true alchemy lies in the action of external stimuli on the mind and thoughts of the writer, creating the gold of a story. There’s also an element of chance: had it not been for a particular combination of circumstances, we would have written different books entirely.