The Thread Of The Tapestry
In every magazine about writing the question comes up with dispiriting regularity; where do you get your ideas from? And every answer must be different. For me it’s not a spark, an image or a snippet of dialogue that sets me off on the trail of a new story. It’s a twist of thread with enough colour in it to be woven into something interesting.
This is literally true of a novel I’m working on in deep background called ‘The Foot on the Crown’, which probably won’t be ready for at least three more years. It began with me looking at an old, unloved tapestry that had become unthreaded in one corner, and two thoughts; that a tapestry depicts history as we would like to imagine and be remembered by it, not how it really is, and that the best plans can become unravelled in their telling…
‘The Foot on the Crown’ is a fanciful version of the birth of London, but when I discussed it with a fellow author he was horrified that I wasn’t going to provide details of the various religious factions in conflict with each other during the period. I explained that if I started into that, I’d end up with a completely different book. The point was to unveil the colourful tapestry even though it was untruthful, and not stick to the more accurate, prosaic facts.
I feel the same way about crime thrillers. Recently I watched the BBC’s three-parter ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’, a true international incident with all the trappings of a John Le Carré thriller, mixed with the Slough House novels of Mick Herron. The real-life facts are startling; murders brazenly committed with an untraceable poison by Russian stooges who kill and harm British citizens. Putin’s spies are beyond inept (they went on TV to tell everyone how much they loved the cathedral), everything that can go wrong does so, and yet ugly assassinations are carried out in the genteel town of Salisbury.
In this case there are clear choices to be made in the storytelling; is it a grotesque black comedy highlighting Putin’s arrogance or a gritty real tragedy? The BBC opted to focus on ‘how ordinary people reacted to a crisis on their doorstep, displaying extraordinary heroism’. The result was like a Crimewatch episode. If you were remotely familiar with the facts there was nothing to do but watch the grim drama roll out very, very slowly, artlessly and drably because it reflects real life.
Such a verité approach worked for ‘Chernobyl’ because the story had far greater repercussions, the details were hitherto largely unknown and an unbearable tension drove the narrative. With ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’ writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson micro-focussed on the ‘ordinary people’ involved, not the wider drama, giving the play a very ‘telly’ feel. This approach has a noble lineage; in his science fiction dramas Nigel Kneale was always careful to include the thoughts of the man and woman on the street, but that was never the only strand, merely a baseline.
Which is how I feel about my own writing; fanciful accuracy is an odd thing to aim for but I like life writ larger. The stories I’m told about London frequently shock me with their sheer absurdity, and I try to reflect that in my books. The business with the ladies protecting endangered bats in ‘The Lonely Hour’ was jotted down practically verbatim. Many similar conversations I have can’t be used because they seem too over-the-top. I could probably get a couple of books out of my neighbours’ Hindu-Jewish-Scottish-Hawaiian-Japanese wedding breakfast but there’s a genuine risk that readers wouldn’t buy it.
For years many people who hadn’t read my books assumed I was writing supernatural stories. But every story has its thread, to be located by the writer and turned into its own tapestry. It’s up to the writer to choose fact or fantasy, and where to pitch camp at any point in between.