"Where do you get your ideas from?"
Someone at work asked me that today, and I've been asked it many times over the years. I expect every author could say the same. Sometimes it’s easy to explain – ‘Wintercombe’ and its successors were originally inspired by a beautiful old house, Great Chalfield Manor in Wiltshire – and sometimes even I’m not sure where the idea originated. But because I’ve only recently embarked on The Casket, and the inspiration has not been lurking in my mind for years (the 19th century horse-racing one has been on the back boiler since I was about 25) but came fresh and new a few months ago, I thought I’d set the process down as I recall it, while memory is still vivid.
Before I started The Casket, I’d been working on a novel set in Elizabethan England. I’ve been writing it for a while, and I’d got stuck. One of the scenes had the heroine doing some embroidery, and I checked out some 16th century pieces, and looked at some books in the library. One of them was a stunningly beautiful book by Thomasina Beck called ‘Gardening With Silk And Gold’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gardening-Silk-Gold-History-Embroidery/dp/0715304879/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8). It’s a history of flowers and gardens as expressed in embroidery, and the pictures were gorgeous. I’m emphatically no embroiderer – I can remember my mother trying in vain to teach me to do cross-stitch when I was about ten – but like painting, and guitar playing, and tennis, I’ve done it badly enough myself to admire unreservedly anyone who does it well.
Another strand was the current fashion for books that link past and present. I’ve read a lot of these over the past few years, some brilliant, others not so, but all enjoyable. It popped into my head from nowhere – that I could write about a modern woman who inherits a lovely old piece of embroidery, and her search for the identity of the person who’d created it. In the process, she discovers a lot not only about needlework in general, and this piece and person in particular, but about herself.
Last October, I had a hip operation (50 years of dog-walking had at last caught up with me) and was laid up for several weeks. I initially thought it’d be a good opportunity to get started on the Elizabethan novel again, but I soon found that the story that would become The Casket was starting to infest my thoughts. I ordered books from the library, which my colleagues put on the mobile library for me so that I could pick them up from our village, hobbling from car to van on my crutches. I’d originally planned to make the piece of embroidery a sampler, or a bed hanging, but the moment I saw a picture of one of the needlework caskets, I knew it had to be that. Not only are they exquisite pieces, superb examples of the embroiderer’s skill, but they were usually made by young girls, as the culmination of their training in the craft. There is an example in the Victoria and Albert Museum by Martha Edlin, who not only put her initials on the cabinet, but kept inside it a selection of the needlework she’d done as a child, including, crucially, a sampler with her full name on it. From that, researchers could work out that she was eleven years old when she finished it. And, like Jenna’s casket, it had been passed down in her family, through the female line, until it was acquired by the museum.
Well, how could I resist? The scenario was perfect. After that, in short order, I had come up with my main modern character, her family, her background, and the fact that at the start of the book, her life wasn’t perfect even though it might appear so. By the end of the book, I plan to have her life very different, and though still not perfect, perhaps better in a lot of respects. Will she find out who made the casket? Sorry, I’m not going to tell you - yet. I will tell you that MJ was a real person, that her family as described are real, as is her home, although as far as I know she never embroidered a casket like the one in the book – or, if she did, it has not survived.
So, there you are – the genesis of a novel. I know where I’m going with it more fully now than when I started – started because it was all fizzing in my head and I had to write it down while everything was flowing. I have scenarios and new characters planned, but they may well take on a life of their own, just as Saskia, already, is threatening to do. I’m going to visit a few places that I’ve known since childhood, and some other places that were also once very familiar to me. This journey is going to be fun, though sometimes the ride might be a bit bumpy, so I hope you'll fasten your seatbelts and enjoy it too.