I’ve come back to this subject because I know this is something that authors get asked about a lot; when my bookshop hosted an author event and some member of the audience asked “where do you get your ideas from?” I would inwardly groan and wish they would ask something more original. But actually, I think writers like to talk about where their ideas come from. I know I have enjoyed using this blog to track the origins of my stories, trying to pinpoint where that very first trickle of an idea came from, like trying to find the source of a stream and then following its course as it grew. Some origins are easily traced, like a spring bursting from under a rock. Others are more like raindrops, gradually gathering and filling an unexpected pocket. Sometimes it easy to identify where the water come from, other times it remains a mystery. There is no answer to the question, and I suspect that the rambling analysis might be of more interest to the writer than to anyone else. However, I have one more thing to say on the subject, about the origins of one very specific idea because it is a rather interesting story in itself. Basically, it starts with a jar of marbles.
Yes, marbles, the little glass spheres of differing size and colour. I had a nice collection when I was a child. But I didn’t play the traditional games with them, like you were supposed to. My marbles were too special for just that, and like all my toys, a way into a narrative. I gave names to my favourites, and they began to take on personalities. They were always brave and heroic, saving their friends and family from potential disasters. These little adventures grew into epic sagas as the marble collection became a sophisticated community with back stories and cultural hierarchies. They were grouped together according to size and colour to denote their family and some were more important than others. There was a royal family, who were bigger than all the others and had matching colours. The smaller marbles were divided by the type of glass; some were clear glass, others were opaque milky white. The milky marbles were particularly striking, having streaks of vibrant colour swirled into the white glass. They came in groups of dark red, sky blue, yellow and indigo. To me, this marked their family and it became a very dominant feature in their society. Family groups liked to stick together, but the best story lines came from cross-colour relationships.
My favourites mostly came from the milkys because their colouring made them easy to identify individuals. The first one to get a name had lovely dark red streaks and was slightly bigger than all the others. I called him Mark, and he was a true hero amongst the marbles. He had a best friend, from the indigo family, who had so much indigo pigment that you could hardly see any white glass on him at all. He was definitely the most handsome and high status member of his family. He was called Paul. These were names taken from boys in my class at primary school, which shows how far back this story goes.
Paul had a girlfriend, a yellow milky. That was a standard sort of match amongst the community; the yellows were abundant and pretty, good girlfriend material. Mark had a girlfriend too, but he had surprised everyone by choosing an outsider, a green milky. There were only three greens; two weren’t very nice but one was lovely. She was Cass, the perfect girlfriend for Mark.
The families grew. Mark had a younger brother, a small red milky with colours just like Mark. And Paul had a younger brother, with softer but equally beautiful indigo streaks. He was called David.
As my marble adventures became more and more elaborate, a new character emerged. There was one milky who didn’t fit in with any of the others. He was blue, but not the turquoise sky colour of the blue milkys, nor the vivid indigo of Paul and David. Neither family wanted him and the rejection made him somewhat angry and bitter. But it also gave him something to prove. Before long, he was stepping into the role of hero, saving the community countless times, even though he was never really given the credit for it. Only two other marbles stood by him. One was Cass, even though that displeased Mark. And the other was David. His brother Paul disapproved but that didn’t stop them from becoming the best of friends. Some of you might have guessed it by now, but that outcast’s name was Dan.
Yes, this is the source of my novel The Most Beloved Boy. Dan and David, the heroes of that story, started life as marbles. Here they are…
(Dan, by the way, is named after I boy I liked in my first year of secondary school. So he must have been created at some time in 1985. I can be very specific about that!)
Back at the height of my fantasy obsession, I had hit upon the idea of turning my marble sagas into a fantasy trilogy. The first book would be Dan and David saving the community. The second book would follow their adventures as they stretched their wings and left the community to explore the world. And the third book would be their return, when they would face the old world with all the benefits of their new experiences. I scribbled the idea down in my notebook of ideas, probably sometime in 1989. I even wrote a few hundred words. Strangely, what I wrote was an extract from that imagined third instalment, when Dan and David return to the village. The other characters are pleased to see David, but Dan doesn’t get the same warm welcome. When it is discovered that David is very ill, they are even less pleased with Dan. That was all I wrote and I didn’t have a plan on what to write next. So I put it away and forgot all about it.
But you see, this is why it is essential to keep notes; once an idea is written down, it’s never really forgotten. Something about this idea lingered at the back of my mind, long after I had given up on writing fantasy. The characters of Dan and David – the plucky outcast and the loyal friend with deep integrity – remained appealing. The prejudice and difficulties they went through to be friends, with the struggles that would go on into their adult lives, was real life and didn’t need a fantasy setting. There was enough drama in that without the epic adventures. I didn’t need to tell the first two parts of the story to tell the third, which was where the true heart and soul of the story lay. Then sometime around 2009 and 2010, I had the answer on how to write their story; I realised that the marble community could be replicated by placing the story in a rural Victorian town. Paul’s sense of superiority and snobbishness was explained by making him a squire. Dan’s position as outcast became a matter of class, complicated further by social taboos. The marble community became the town, led by the Squire’s rigid sense of propriety to ostracise Dan and blame him for taking David away. Dan and David’s adventures around the world became real travels in the Merchant Navy. And their return, ten years later, would be the beginning of the plot. And there it was, my next novel; a tale of two characters who had been developing in my imagination for over twenty years. And when I started writing them into life, I discovered that they hadn’t changed at all. They were still the true heroes I had always known them to be and I loved them just as much as I had at the age of thirteen.