Inspiration

Reflecting on five novels in five years

To write five novels in five years has been – for me – a remarkable journey of discovery. I’ve found a new and deeply rewarding profession that complements my other ongoing activities (diplomacy, the environment and the preservation of buildings in King’s Lynn of historical and architectural merit) and provides a new and refreshing means of expression after years of writing dry policy papers and briefs.

Moreover, my storytelling since 2013 has provided the opportunity to draw afresh on my memories and experiences of a deeply satisfying and varied career with the Foreign Office (pictured) and to recall observations of human nature – at its best and at its worst. In addition, each book not only has strands of history, drama and music intertwined with my love of art in all of its forms but also – just as important – strong central female characters.

And the five books have spanned three genres – historical chronicle (the Herzberg trilogy) spread over 153 years of European history ending in 1918; a modern story of betrayal in war-torn Berlin in 1946/7 against a backdrop of British and Soviet intelligence rivalry (little has changed since then); and now – in The Lute Player – fantasy and obsession.

What to write next? There’ll be a decision about that before too long…

My writing method

People often ask me about my writing method. Of course, each writer has his or her own but here is mine (please remember I’m relatively new at the game).

First, I set myself a completion deadline and stick to it. This approach probably reflects my diplomatic career in which every task – writing a brief, a policy paper or a speech – had a firm deadline which had to be met.

Second, I decide a working title for the book. It may not remain the title at the end but during the writing it provides a valuable focus – the end point. I’ve only changed a title once at the end, but on the advice of my copy editor reverted to the one I had chosen at the start. She was right.

Third, I then decide how many parts the book should have and once that is done I list the provisional chapter headings in each part. These headings (and the part headings) sometimes get changed as I go along. Nonetheless the list acts a road map.

Fourth, I don’t write every day as I have other things to do but I will certainly do so when I am free, whether it be during the day or evening. I have a notebook with me all the time so that on train journeys, bus rides or when I’m just having a coffee in London I can write down quickly any thoughts about the storyline that suddenly occur to me – as a consequence of what I might observe, overhear or read. I am fascinated by human nature and it’s all around us when we are out and about.

Fifth, towards the end of writing a book I try not to become obsessed with tying up too many loose ends. Some I do but others I leave, knowing that they will always be there if I want to follow up with a new book later.

Last, how do I know if I’ve got to the end of the story I am telling? The answer is I know I have when I get there. I just get a feeling that it’s time to stop.

If I didn’t I might miss it.

Encore: on music and writing again

I have already written about the way in which some pieces of 18th and 19th century music inspired a handful of scenes in each of the three books in the Herzberg trilogy.

As a general rule I do not write to music playing in the background, much preferring to write in silence. The room in Norfolk where I do so overlooks a garden which greatly extends the quiet space in which I can let my imagination loose – a larger stage for characters to come to life whether during the day or in the evening.

Sometimes however I find it helpful before I begin writing to listen to a piece of music to help me let go of other preoccupations of the day. I choose at random from several favourite pieces. These include:

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau: Symphonie Imaginaire: a selection of Rameau’s best music assembled all in one work by the French baroque specialist Marc Minkowski and played under his baton by Les Musiciens du Louvre; or
  • Mozart: the aria Soave sia il Vento from his opera Cosi fan Tutte. In the trio two young women say farewell to their lovers who are about to deceive them cruelly revealing in turn the women’s own weaknesses. It is sublime piece of music accompanied by a superb libretto “On your voyage may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond to your desires….”. What better words to hear at the start of a journey of imagination; or
  • Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, a setting of transcendent beauty of Psalm 51 and once one of the Vatican’s most closely guarded secrets which anyone found attempting to copy it was threatened with excommunication. But then Mozart came along and wrote out the whole piece from memory. The rest is history.

Why diplomats make good authors

As a former diplomat and strong advocate of the long view in history, I think I’ve got more experience than most of the good and bad in human nature amongst the many people I’ve met in my career. Like many authors I draw extensively on this experience in my writing, and A Motif of Seasons is no different.

For example, many things I learned and witnessed during my four-year posting to Berlin from 1985-89 made their way into the German settings in the book. In particular, I drew on my knowledge of diplomacy and how it works (little has changed in its principles and basic application over the past 200 years). It also informed the development of one of the main characters, lawyer Charles Hardinge, whose shrewd ability to observe events, people and their motives would have made him a good diplomat.

My diplomatic background also meant that I was able easily to draw on forty years of being part of the British foreign policy-making machine: of meeting particular historical figures (such as Henry Kissinger, US President Ford and Margaret Thatcher); as well as brave young Iraqis risking their lives to come to work in the Foreign Ministry I was helping to reform after the fall of Saddam Hussein; and not least the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iraq at the time, a close personal friend who was assassinated.

Above all, however, it is my first-hand experience of the extent to which fate – the unexpected – often has an impact on human affairs that has influenced my writing the most.

A trip to Nuremberg

The photograph below shows the main entrance to the building in Nuremberg where senior members of the Nazi regime were tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The process began on 20 November 1945 and ended on 1 October 1946, with those sentenced to death executed by hanging 15 days later.

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As my wife and I stood in court room 600 on the first floor on Sunday 11 September this year shafts of sunlight penetrated the room. Though still used for trials today its basic layout is the same as in 1945 – the defendants on the left in the box, their defence counsel in front, the judges facing on the right and the prosecuting counsel at right angles to the bench. As we stood close to where Goering, Hess, Frank, Ribbentrop and others had sat facing judges from the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France (two judges from each of the four victors and occupying powers), the room still had a chilling atmosphere.

On the floor above the courtroom is an impressive and thought provoking permanent exhibition giving the full history of the trial (and the subsequent ones in Berlin of subordinates) and the steps thereafter over many decades leading eventually to the formation of the international courts to try offences committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and ultimately to the formation of the current International Criminal Court.

Afterwards we went to see the ancient St Sebaldus church badly bombed by the Allies in 1944, but where citizens continued to worship under open skies until the church was restored. Later we went to visit the house of Albrecht Dürer, the acclaimed artist and engraver (1471–1528), and after that to the Imperial Castle overlooking Nuremburg. Two days before we went out in a large boat on the Starnberger See (an hour out of Munich). That evening I photographed the opera house in Munich where I went one evening in 1985 to watch a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde while studying German before my next diplomatic posting in Berlin.

Despite having only just completed the final volume in the Herzberg trilogy, the purpose of this visit – and to the court house specifically – was to research the backdrop to my next book, and collect sufficient material to begin writing in the weeks and months ahead.

Remembering Private Charles Alfred Lawrence

With World War 1 as part of its concluding backdrop, I have decided to dedicate A Motif of Seasons to Private Charles Alfred Lawrence of the 9th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. The Royal British Legion gave me his name as part of their programme to have members of the public remember individually every British and Commonwealth soldier killed in the four year conflict.

Lawrence was killed one hundred years ago today, 15 September 1916 – the same day as Lieutenant Raymond Asquith, son of the then serving Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – in an offensive against German lines during the Battle of the Somme (1 July–18 November). He has no known grave but his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in northern France.

I visited the memorial on Sunday 10 June this year during a short tour of the Somme battlefields with a military expert to check facts about the battle, and saw Lawrence’s name inscribed on one of the sixteen pillars. It was a moving moment.

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Music as a source of writing inspiration

writing-789835_1280All three of my books contain a significant number of musical references: the baroque period in The Music Book; baroque and classical in Fortune’s Sonata; and the classical and romantic period in A Motif of Seasons.

The performance of music in all three books – either by a fictional chamber orchestra or by fictional soloists or singers – is an integral part of each story line. It not only reflects my affection for classical music but has been a literary tool occasionally used to help convey the context of a scene I am writing about. To put it another way, I seek to translate into words the music which depicts what I see in my imagination.

For example, the second movement of Ludwig Abeille’s piano concerto for four hands underpinned a sexual scene in Fortune’s Sonata. It was equally the case with the second movement of Bacarisse’s guitar concertino to convey in the same book a scene in Andalusia of impending and poignant finality.

In short, for me there are times where music has provided inspiration for the conveyance of particular images in words.

How a one-off romantic story became a historical fiction trilogy spanning three centuries

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Portrait of Frederick the Great of Prussia, believed to be by the painter Christian Friedrich Ziesenis (1729–1792)

August has been an incredibly busy month for me. The final manuscript for A Motif of Seasons has been sent for production, and the publicity machine is preparing for action. This has given me time to reflect on my journey as an author over the last few years.

I originally intended for The Music Book to be a one-off historical romance story written for fun. Covering the years 1764–1766 it would be woven around fictional characters in England and Prussia, sparked by an 18th-century portrait of Frederick the Great and a 19th-century British passport in our family’s possession. I did it as a welcome antidote to decades of writing Foreign Office policy papers, briefs and speeches, writing for my own enjoyment and then to share the outcome with others if they so wished.

Once written I felt the characters nagging me to continue the story. Buoyed by some excellent reviews and feedback, I decided to do so in the sequel, Fortune’s Sonata, which covers the much longer period 1767–1816 and is set against the backdrop of the later years of Frederick the Great, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

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Passport issued on 3 October 1853 to Mr Robert Whitfield, his wife and son for the purpose of “travelling on the Continent”

It seemed only fitting to then conclude the chronicle of the two families I introduced in The Music Book, following them from 1853 to the First World War in the final novel A Motif of Seasons.

Though I had access to many sources, the stories stem entirely from my imagination. After dark, during the long winter nights in Norfolk, I was able to shut out the modern world and imagine these families struggling with the bitter legacy of an ancestral marriage in 1766 against a background of looming war. Writing was like driving a car alone late at night across an inky black landscape absent of landmarks – with the way ahead illuminated only a short distance by the two shafts of light from the headlights. Everything else either side or beyond was in darkness, providing ample scope for invention of what might be there. The Herzberg Trilogy is the result of that long dark journey.