Theme and Imagery in a Historical Novel

Extract from a talk given at The Beijing Bookworm

March 2006

Novelist Adam Williams - Photo © Lucy CavenderI’m sometimes asked – as I suppose every author is on occasion – how do you begin a novel? Lifting up one of my 600-page tomes, people quiz me, how do you come up with the plot for such a big, heavy thing? Do you map it all out first? Write a synopsis? How do you do your research? The question really boils down to: where does the story come from?

I imagine that there are as many answers to that question as there are different writers. Some of my author friends are brave mariners, who are prepared to set sail on page one with no charts and only a glimmer in their mind of their final destination. I’m rather in awe of these explorers, who, like Columbus, are confident in their own vision, trusting they will find the fair wind that will bring them to their Americas.

I’m more a cautious coast-tacker myself and I won’t sail anywhere unless I have all my navigational aids in my sea chest. I do very long, detailed synopses. The one for this last book covered nearly seventy pages. Before that I had spent two or three months reading everything I could lay my hands on about the warlord period in China of the 1920s (I spent a fortune at Abe Books and Alibris and other second hand websites). When I sat down at my blank screen, just after Christmas in 2003, I had a sheaf of notes, books on the period neatly arranged on a shelf by my desk, and, oh yes, I’d spent the whole day beforehand tidying the room, as if by clearing the physical surroundings I could somehow pretend that I had removed the clutter from my mind.

It’s a great crutch having a synopsis. Even when the whole size of the project daunts you, or in those weak moments of panic when you think you’ll never be able to write another word, the fact there is a map beside you, covering (sort of) where you’ve come from, and pointing (sort of) to where you want to go makes you believe it may be manageable after all. But I say “sort of” because, however detailed your synopsis, it’s only at the end of the day an abstract, or representation. It’s a bit like trying to guide your way down a specific country lane with a NASA satellite photo of the whole of the southwest of England. At other times it’s like one of J K Rowlings’ shifting staircases in Hogworts. For synopses have a habit of changing as you go along! It’s better than nothing – and, as I say, it gives you a sense of direction – but ultimately it doesn’t help you when you have to put the plot, and the characters, and the descriptions, and the pace into words on a page.

You often hear the clichés “this is a scene that wrote itself” or “such and such a character took on a life of his own.” And it’s true, every author at various times has felt that sensation of “writing outside yourself”. I remember I wrote one of my chapters almost in a trance, as if I had been spatially and temporally removed to the scene. I was noting down what happened like a disinterested observer. I wrote 5,000 words, not stopping until late in the evening, and the following day I was jetlagged, as if I had been on a journey to another time zone. Strangely too, it was all good stuff. When editing, I hardly had to change a word (unlike those dreadful 500 or 1000-word-days when you go over and over each sentence again and again and are still not satisfied). It’s the Coleridge dream phenomenon, of course (you remember the man from Porlock who interrupted that poet’s stream of consciousness ‘Xanadu’?). It’s also, I imagine, what the poets of more classical times described as “being visited by their Muse.” Sure, there’s a rational explanation. When it happens – and it doesn’t very often – it’s at times when the mind is working at full gear, the channels are opened a little to that 90% of the brain that is not usually used. Every writer knows that the process of creation involves more than puzzling things out with the conscious mind. I have hardly ever solved a serious problem – a new plot shift or a motivation of character or a cul-de-sac in the narrative – by ‘thinking’ it through. The answer is usually instinctive, counter intuitive. The solution surprises you when the mind’s on idle – with me, it’s usually when I’m in the shower – but the answer is there, fully formed and perfect. Stephen King put it beautifully. He said: “You’ve got to let the boys in the basement do the work.”

Adam Williams photo © Lucy Cavender