Here’s an idea – remembering where your story came from

It is the question I get more than any other, from children and in particular adults. ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ It’s one just about every writer is asked and I suspect many dread. ‘Tell us your inspiration…’ 

The questioner may be expecting, or hoping for, an answer that begins along the lines of “it was as I canoed across the great Limpopo, a liquid sun pouring into the river behind me…” So apologies in advance because it’s more likely to go something like this: ‘Um, I don’t really know.’ Which is not a reply that engages an audience. 

There is an oven-ready excuse for not having a riveting answer to hand. By the time it comes to talking about the idea for your latest book that idea is probably at least two years old. Because since having that supposed eureka moment and scaring the wits from the wallowing Limpopo hippos, you have researched, planned, plotted, drafted once, twice, three times, edited, edited again (and again), become sick of the entire story, broken up with the characters, fallen in love with them and the story again, waited nervously while the book went off to the printers, waited even more nervously while early copies went out to bloggers and reviewers and finally watched – by this point nerves making your teeth jangle – your book head off into the world. So much water has flowed down the Limpopo that that twig of an idea has been swept far out to sea.

A confession. For my first book, the Tzar’s Curious Runaways, I can’t remember where the actual idea came from. I’ve vague memories of a story coming together but I didn’t have a lightbulb moment. It goes like this: I read something in a history book, it interests me and from there my mind starts wandering, picking up this and that, examining it, keeping this, discarding that and at the end I empty my bag and see what I’ve got. A few characters, some real, some imagined, a time in history that interests me – and a time in which I can bring children to the front rather than their usual roll in history books as background unless they are needed to sit on a throne or condemned to a painful and premature end. 

For my new book, the Acrobats of Agra, I promised myself I would make notes on the story’s progression, the first glimmer, the first character, the initial plot. The problem is I have a mind that flits here and… ohh, look a butterfly.

But this time I did have a moment, a real moment of ‘yes, that’s it…’ And I remember how it happened. 

I knew the place for my story. I wanted to write a story set in historic India. I love history, love burying myself in history books, learning of times I know little of. The interest in India came from a distant family connection – my several greats granddad, James Scott-Elliot, lived in Kolkata for 24 years, working for the loathed and loathsome East India Company. He went there chasing a job, after his family lost everything in the crash of 1842. He couldn’t find work back home in Scotland nor in London so followed what for a prospect-less, 19th-century young Scottish man was a familiar path. Five of his brothers and sisters went after him and three of them died in India. 

James wrote a diary of his time in India. A transcription has sat beneath my desk for years and I’ve long wondered if there might be a story in it. A couple of years ago I finally started to read and the diaries seemed to offer the perfect setting for a tale of, say, a brother and sister sent out to India to join their parents. It was common then for children not to see their parents for years. 

James’ voyage was remarkable – a sailor was swept overboard as the ship was battered by a wild storm, an albatross followed them for several days then a whale bumped into the ship (or was it the other way round?) and below decks there was some sort of scandal, though James is too much the strait-laced Victorian to do any more than hint at what happened even in the privacy of his diary.

When war broke out in 1857, James was living in Kolkata. It was a particularly bloody conflict, the British reacting with wide-scale brutality to the threat to their rule. I like the idea of placing my child characters in the middle of historical conflicts – I want my stories to have a dark edge around them, as Robert Louis Stevenson does in Kidnapped and Treasure Island – and so this was all coming together. I fleshed out a plot and began to do my historical research.

One weekend we took a family trip to Edinburgh and ended up browsing in the second-hand bookshops just off the Grassmarket. Downstairs in the institution that is Edinburgh Books I came across a copy of Christopher Hibbert’s ‘The Great Mutiny, India 1857’. It was published in 1978 and I’d been looking for something more recent – William Dalrymple and Saul David were to become key historical guides for my story – but what the heck, you can never have too many books, especially history books, and especially older books that smell like old books.

And here it came, my actual Eureka moment. Hibbert wrote of the siege of the great city of Agra: “It was excessively crowded, over 6,000 people having taken shelter there, soldiers, civilian officials and their families, native servants, half castes, Italian monks, nuns, Swiss missionaries, American salesman, even rope dancers and acrobats from a travelling French circus. Edith Sharpley was sharing a tiny room with…” 

Hang on, hang on. Go back a bit… Swiss missionaries? Forward a bit… a travelling French circus… trapped in a siege. 

Three words – travelling French circus – that demanded 59,997 more. I searched and searched but could find nothing more about the circus, which for a novelist was actually a blessing. Because it meant I could fill in the blanks. I ripped up my plot, ditched my brother and sister characters and started again with the circus at the centre of the story.

I did find a list of names of all the Europeans, as non-Indians were then known, caught in the siege. Among them a Romanini – surely one of the French acrobats I thought and he became one of my leads. A Miss Goodenough – she had to be a teacher didn’t she? All the British names I use in the Acrobats, Biddle, Slasher, Spelling etc, are taken from this siege list or James’ diary. 

The name of my main Indian character, Pingali Rao, is borrowed from an ancient poet and a leading figure in the independence movement, Pingali Venkayya who designed the modern Indian tricolour.

So there you go: that combination of history, a browse in a bookshop and three words that leapt off the page, that’s where my idea for the Acrobats of Agra came from. And I have remembered it. Which is just as well as I couldn’t tell you with any certainty where the spark for the Second World War-set manuscript I have since written came from. And in the last few weeks I’ve started on a new project – one which I’m really excited about – and thinking about it, thinking very hard… already I’ve no idea where the idea came from. So please don’t ask.   

Before I finish I owe a few huge thank-yous to those who have taken the Acrobats from my rough first draft and made it into the book it is. Mikka at Everything WithWords gave the story its heart and soul with her editorial directions. Her enthusiasm for the Acrobats and suggestions for redrafts and changes to storyline and character were proved right again and again. I owe her a great deal. 

As I do Holly Ovenden – the cover and illustrations are hers and whatever you may think of the story there is no denying the beauty of the book. I love her Tonton and I love the look of the book. And thank you so much to Laura for getting the book out there, getting it seen and heard, in what is an incredibly tough time for inde publishers.

Thank you Fred, Lucy and Iona for being early readers, and thanks to Sarah and Allan for their help. And finally thank you Karen, for reading, advice, pep talks – and for everything.

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