I wanted to write a post about starting my first novel. I remember the day I found Marta’s character, but was that the same as the day I first put some cluttered words down on paper? The literal beginning of the original novel ended up being back story which wasn’t at all relevant to the final draft. So when talking about beginnings, it is difficult to work out exactly where to start.
The simple answer is that I began writing my novel while I was studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway in London. I was writing a dark and almost incomprehensible story of a troubled young woman, and I remember one of my friends on the course saying that there seemed to be no reason for her to be so troubled. Where had it all begun?
I happened to see a documentary that same week about Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome. The thing I found most fascinating was how you can repress memories of a traumatic event over many years, only to have them resurface later. I wondered if I could explore this further, and perhaps use it to explain the character I was currently writing.
Then came the first bout of research. When I get stuck, this is where I go first. I turned to scientific papers, books, documentaries, other novels, and anything I could find relevant to my broad topic areas. I read voraciously. I find any research period rather frustrating, as the more reading you do, the less words are going down on the page. And especially as I had a limited time in which to write, that always felt like a failure. But a necessary one, because in order to become unstuck, I needed to find a new way back into the story. I wasn’t really stalled: I was propelling myself forward.
And then one day, on a train, I started writing. The first scene of the novel, set in a country kitchen, where the main character is smoking an illicit cigarette, was what came out. Marta was a lot older than the original troubled young woman had been, but she was the same person. I had decided it would be better to first meet the character who had suffered the trauma many years after it had happened. The reader would get the sense there was something strange about her, but the years would have made the experience less raw than it had been at the beginning. That would make it all the more exciting when she started to remember.This was where the book started, and after that, it was a matter of keeping going. I still didn’t know what the story was going to be: that came much later.