A writer I like, Mohsin Hamed, wrote an essay for the New York Times a couple of years ago, in which he described the DNA of fiction as a double-helix: one strand comprised of what the writer knows, and the other strand comprised of what the writer wants to know. Hamed’s description of fiction writing struck a chord with me, as over the past decade my writing process has become something like this:
- Research what fascinates me and I want to learn more about.
- Wait for characters and storylines to evolve out of my research.
Needless to say, characters and plots don’t always materialize, no matter how long I spend in the library, scribbling on A4. When I was writing my last novel, The Incarnations, I spent ages reading about the 17th century Emperor Hongwu. As spectacular as his rags to riches ascendancy to the throne was, I struggled to make fiction out of it. But, despite the odd dead end, researching what I want to know is the best inspiration for the fiction I write.
A few days ago I arrived at Gladstone’s Library to be Writer in Residence for the month of April. January, February and March were stressful months, so coming to the Welsh village of Hawarden to write in Gladstone’s Library everyday has been like a dream. While I’m here, I’ll be working on my fourth novel. I started Untitled Book IV over a year ago, but brain-grindingly slow writer that I am, I’ve only written a few chapters. I’ve also written this list:
Research for Untitled Book IV
Psychology of superstitious belief
Free will and determinism
Leipzig School of painting
History of the graphic novel
International artist communes
This is an abbreviated list of stuff that I’ve become interested in (and in some cases obsessed by) over the past year. Some subjects on the list, like the Leipzig School, are very specific and I already know how it will relate to my book. Other subjects, like the occult, are vast, and I’ve yet to figure out the fictional role it will play. Fortunately for the next month I am (sort of) living in a library, with a collection of over thirty thousand books – some of which are very relevant to the research I want to do. I just typed ‘Occult’ into the Gladstone’s Library main catalogue, and on the first page of results: Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphor and Media in the 21st Century by Marina Warner, Witchcraft: A History, and Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism. This is the beginnings of a very creepy reading list (that I intend to start on in the spooky library after dark). Hopefully I’ll discover something in these books that I can weave into the half-formed characters and plotlines in my head. Inspiration that comes from the second strand of the DNA of fiction, that Hamed referred to as ‘what the writer wants to know’.
Susan leads a day masterclass on depicting visual art and artists in literature on Saturday, 30th April. For more information, please click here.