I have been giving some thought recently to the nature of inspiration. What makes someone write a poem, paint a picture, or write a novel? What image, thought, or news story triggers our imagination, takes root there, bores away over time, until we are unable to resist.
I have written two novels now and am beginning to think about the third…and the fourth. I have at least half a dozen stories jotted down in notebooks; fragments of ‘beginnings’ in my laptop that I could develop and turn into the ‘next’ novel. But what is it that makes it impossible to ignore that fragment, that germ of an idea, so that you’re forced to lock yourself away for a year and write it.
As with so many writers, my first novel had an element of autobiography about it. My husband had been taken ill whilst making a film about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I spent two weeks in Pisa caring for him whilst he recovered in hospital, and over the next few years, as I found out more and more about the history of the Tower, a story began to form in my mind about the extraordinary woman who left the money to build the Tower.
My second novel Daughters of the Silk Road (published on 15th April 2016) was triggered by three things. Firstly my love of blue and white china – English, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese… there is something timeless, beautiful and restful about ceramics or pieces of porcelain that are decorated with one colour – blue. Blue and white plates look stunning arranged in groups on a wall, or on a dresser in a kitchen. Larger pieces add life and interest to otherwise monotonous interior schemes - a pair of large storage jars on top of a painted cupboard, for example, add glamour. You can use them in the garden too; the traditional Chinese ceramic garden seat, often decorated in blue and white, makes the perfect occasional stool or side table.
So, I had a subject that I wanted to write about; and let’s be honest, it’s always more enjoyable to write about a subject you love. I was interested too in the idea of how many antique pieces might be languishing undiscovered in people’s attics, or sitting propped in the corner of a hallway filled with umbrellas. I am a fan of antique fairs and never tire of rifling through the remnants of the other people’s past lives.
Almost inevitably, I am fascinated by family history. My own, and other people’s. I have traced my own family back to the 13th century in Scotland and knew I would enjoy writing a tale about one family’s descendants, exploring what happened to them.
Gradually a story began to take shape in my mind. A woman, with little or no money, who inherits a ‘vase’. A blue and white china vase that she believes has no value. Might she be wrong? And if so, how did she come to inherit it?
I needed to find an historical figure who might have brought the vase into Europe. Here I had a bit of luck. Researching merchant explorers of the 15th century I discovered the story of Niccolo dei Conti who travelled all over the Middle and Far East, returning finally to Venice after twenty-five years in 1444. He brought with him two of his children – Maria and Daniele. From his remarkable diary – kept in the British Library – we know quite a lot about where he travelled and what he saw. We know that he married an Indian woman and had four children. We know that she died in an epidemic in Cairo along with two of their children and their servants. But what was their life like once they returned to Venice? And what could be the link with Miranda – the heroine of my modern story?
I have spent a fascinating year researching a period in history from the 15th – 17th centuries, following the fortunes of European merchants. Venice was a vitally important trading centre at that time, as was Bruges in the north of Europe. But as the fortunes of these cities changed, other centres of trade took their place– Antwerp, for example, and then Amsterdam. I explore some of the reasons for this in the novel. These beautiful cities form the backdrop for a family who, though ‘descended’ from a real person – Niccolo dei Conti and his two children – are entirely fictional. Nevertheless, so complicated and complex did this family turn out to be, that I was forced in the end to create a family tree for them, just to ensure that the various generations were correct, that birth dates and deaths made sense in the context of the story.
Now, on my writing room wall, I have pinned the tree of my story family and they are almost as ‘real’ to me as my own family tree. In many ways, they are more real, as I have explored and developed their characters, their occupations and ways of life and so on. I understand their motivations, their desires, whereas the characters in my own family history are usually just names and dates – nothing more.
This then was my inspiration. I hope it provides a little pleasure for others.