It all comes back to me now.
It’s not just the story you revisit when you edit a novel for conversion to an ebook. It’s also the emotions, thoughts, experiences, everything that was tied up with the writing of it.
Or in the case of ‘A High and Lonely Road’, the not writing of it.
It was the first and only time I’ve ever experienced writer’s block. I’d been writing stories since I could first string words together. I’d published seven romantic historical novels and two mainstream works of historical fiction. The words had always flowed – or at least after the first draft was done, they’d flowed. Sometimes, before that, I’d have an hour or two when it was a bit of a struggle (particularly with ‘A Kind of Paradise’, the idea for which – exceptionally – came not from me but from my agent). But I wrote every day, without fail, as far as was humanly possible.
Then came ‘A High and Lonely Road’ and the time that’s suddenly returned to me. Day after day, sitting in front of that typewriter (it was a long time ago – I was still using my father’s old 1950s typewriter) with no words coming at all, nothing in my head or my heart, nothing to make my fingers form the sentences… That was horrible, truly frightening. I even began to wonder if I’d never write again.
By that point, I’d done lots of research and written a couple of chapters, and I knew roughly where the story was going. There was no good reason, no possible explanation, for the failure to write. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t the book I’d wanted to write.
The book I passionately wanted to do was set during the French Revolution, whose Bicentenary was fast approaching. It was to have at its heart the people who formed the Revolution, tracing how their burning ideals led at last to the Terror.
But my editor hated the French Revolution as a subject, and spurned my proffered outline (something that had never happened to me before). The two books she’d already handled centred on ‘enterprises’ – Josiah Wedgwood’s revolutionary pottery industry (‘A Kind of Paradise‘), and an imaginary but carefully researched French vineyard (‘A Thread of Gold’). Enterprise was in the air, and she wanted more of it.
Searching around (rather grumpily) for a theme, I happened upon a reference to an attempt, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, to bring cotton mills to the northern Yorkshire dales. I know about the mills in the area near Manchester (who doesn’t?) but to think that Swaledale and Wensleydale might once have resembled them – that was an arresting thought. I decided to go with it, came up with an outline, and my editor, delighted, commissioned the book.
But this was during the Thatcher years, when ‘enterprise’ was all the rage, greed was good, public service was a dirty word (or two!) and the old industries were despised, fit only to be closed down and asset-stripped. I could see all around me the way those policies destroyed communities, left people who had worked hard all their lives without jobs or hope. I loathed Margaret Thatcher and all she and her government stood for. I most definitely did not want to write something that fed into the mood of the times – or not that particular mood anyway.
So there were a good many reasons why the writing of the book should have stalled, so early on. I was writing against everything I wanted to do, and at that point I really didn’t care about the people in the book.
In the end, I abandoned the typewriter, jumped in the car and spent several days driving around the Dales, soaking up the atmosphere and doing bits of research, following my nose as the mood took me. It was a good tactic. It worked. I began to care about the book and its characters. I came home and the words flowed.
But the other thing I can see now, re-reading it, is that it is full of what I so deeply felt. Robert, the older brother, is the Thatcherite, out to make money, uncaring how he goes about it, scornful of the old ways, embracing change whatever the cost. Hannah the heroine and Samuel, the younger brother, represent the opposite view. Of course, it’s not quite so blatant as that, but it’s there. Sadly, it seems even more relevant now, under our current government.
As for the French Revolution, I did get round to it eventually – and overcame my editor’s aversion to the subject – with a novel centred on a heroine who is caught up in it by accident; and by setting a large chunk of the story in Northumberland as well as Paris. And I believe ‘Candle in the Dark‘ is a much better book than the one I’d wanted to write could ever have been.
My editor was quite right.
Is this another example of the usefulness of proper publishers? It’s a thought to make any self-publisher a little uneasy…