In my last blog, I wrote about doing Nano Wrimo and writing a novel in thirty days. I started that thirty day challenge knowing that I was writing a novel called No Such Cold Thing, which is important because, like my earlier novel Have You Got That Book? this was another novel that started with the title. Coming up with a title for a novel that is already in progress can be quite hard, but coming up with titles for novels that are never going to be written is a speciality of mine. If I had kept a record of all those titles, it would read like a library of novels, all with such fantastic names that you would wish they had actually been written. If only there was some way of selling them to other writers – how much would you pay for a great title and the bones of a plot? Any takers?
This particular title comes from a poem. If I tell you that it is a poem called The Flower by the metaphysical poet George Herbert and was written in the early part of the 17th Century, I’m going to sound much more highbrow and learned than I have any claim to. In truth, I never really liked the metaphysical poets when they came up on my English Literature degree. I only came across the poem much later when the choir I sing with learnt a song which set the words of it to music. At one rehearsal while we were learning the song, I looked at the line “Grief melts away like snow in May, as if there were no such cold thing.” And I thought, hmm, that would make a great title for a novel.
What happened next was one of those wonderful thunderclap moments, when two ideas and one glorious coincidence all came together in perfect harmony. As I said in my previous blog, this was a time when I had finished a first draft of The Most Beloved Boy and wanted a new project. I had in mind that it would be nice to write a novel that my children could read. My eldest daughter was eleven and she loved to read, so I would write a children’s novel for her. I even had a good story to work on, an old idea gathered from my trick of turning every day events into narrative. This came from picking raspberries in the garden of my childhood home, which had inspired a story about a girl living in a big mansion, who makes friends with the gypsies who live in the grounds, and how she tries to help them stay on the land when her evil uncle wants to evict them. It was another of those old ideas that had wormed its way into my memory and clung on, getting itself written down in a notebook in 1997. It was the perfect idea for my next project, a historical novel for children.
Then came the glorious coincidence. As the choir practiced The Flower, I daydreamed about a novel called No Such Cold Thing, wondering what it might be about, and if it might fit with a historical children’s novel. I knew nothing about George Herbert, but I thought it might be nice to use the poem if I could. So I looked George Herbert up on Wikipedia and discovered that as well as having a fairly successful career as a poet, he had been a clergy man in the early decades of the 17th Century. He had been the vicar of a parish near Salisbury, and his tomb is still in the church there. It wasn’t very inspiring, except for the location. One of the key features of my story was a rural mansion, where my heroine was going to come and live following the death of her parents. If you’re thinking that sounds a bit like The Secret Garden, you’re right, it is exactly like that. But instead of Yorkshire, I saw how I could set my story in Wiltshire. It was going to be about a fictional family, but with marital connections to the Herbert family, descended from none other than George Herbert. (I made all this up too, by the way, there was minimal research involved – apologies to anyone who might actually be descended from George Herbert!) And that detail was the spark that lit this novel up. It was unbelievably perfect. The poem is about trusting in God to heal pain and grief, like the flowers that disappear in the winter but return in spring, no worse off for their sojourn underground. My fictional family, the Levinsons, are locked in grief and mourning, not able to move on from a tragedy of several decades ago. My heroine, Kitty, comes from a branch of the family that migrated to America. I decided to not make her an orphan after all, but have her come to live with her English family when her father has to go and work in Alaska. She is a plucky, intelligent girl, who loves poetry and is thrilled to discover that she is related to a famous poet. She is not so thrilled with the Levinsons; she doesn’t understand them and they don’t understand her. She is very pleased to make friends with a young gypsy boy, and takes their side in the debate about their forthcoming eviction. As heir to the house and estate, she wants them to be able to stay but knows that by the time she inherits, they will have been evicted by her uncle. Somehow, it is up to her to change her uncle’s mind.
These were the bones of plot that I began with in November 2014. The only planning I had in place were the characters. I had worked out the family tree and Kitty’s place in the chain of inheritance. I had made some slight changes to the Levinson family, establishing them as a sick great-grandfather, a stern great-aunt who had very fixed ideas about children staying seen but not heard, and I had replaced the a evil uncle with a kind but weak great-uncle. The connection to George Herbert was through the great-grandfather’s late wife. The other characters were the gypsies, a boy called Tam who Kitty befriends, and his great-grandfather, who was promised the right to camp on the land for the term of his life but now he is old and frail and the agreement ends when he dies. For Kitty, helping the gypsies seems to be linked to the mystery of what happened to the Levinson family that caused so much grief, and if she can solve that, she might just find a way to save the gypsy camp. But that was as much as I knew when I started. I honestly had no idea what the mystery was going to be, or how a twelve year-old girl was going to convince her family to change their minds and let the gypsies stay. Well, I had some ideas, but they were flimsy, like translucent ghosts, nothing more than suggestions lurking in the shadows, only glimpsed in the corner of an eye. The thing about Nana Wrimo is that you don’t have time to stop and plan. But as I wrote, the characters began to grow, and some ideas began to gain strength, naturally developing by themselves. The character of Toby, the pathetic great-uncle, took shape in ways I had never expected. I developed a back story for him that was so tragic that Kitty, and myself, couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. But then it is his grief that has caused the stagnation in the family and it his attitude that causes Kitty the most problems. He was a very interesting character to write, and creating him drove the narrative forward, as he was sometimes nice to Kitty and sometimes frustrating. His tragedy was the mystery, a simple tale of loss, not such a mystery after all. And through it all, the poem weaved its beautiful words, echoing with the themes of love and death that were emerging in the story. I even managed to combine it with Hiawatha, which American Kitty tries to teach to her new English friends. In the end, it is the poetry that guides Kitty when things seem most bleak. The pressure of writing 1666 words a day took me to a climax that could not have been more perfect if I had planned it for months. Not only did I finish Nano Wrimo with 50,000 words and a complete children’s novel, but also a novel I was extremely proud of.
And I’m happy to say that my daughter did read it, and liked it very much. At least, she said she did. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that was just being kind to her old mum, but her word was enough for me. Once she had read it, I wanted it to be available for anyone to read; even though I wrote it for children, I think it’s an interesting enough story for adults to enjoy too. It’s for sale on Kindle alongside my two adult novels. You could decide for yourself – was she just humouring me?