First Lines, First Paragraphs, First Pages

It starts with a buzzing into my brain of something I’d like to write about, explore… a fragment. Sometimes the first germ of an idea concerns a relationship, at other times I want to write about a particular place or time. The first spark can be inspired by a line of verse or an article in a newspaper. I scribble it down in a notebook and look at it again weeks or months – sometimes years – later, to judge whether it has enough fuel for a long novel.

It starts to take on a shape. I rough out my plot, joining together the fragments to make a story. Some writers develop the plot as they go along – I would find that too nerve-wracking. Many of my novels have long timespans that continue through the decades, many are multigenerational. My fictional story has to tie into the historical background, so keeping track of dates and ages of characters is essential. But I always alter and adapt the plot as I write, and as the story develops.

Things can change radically at this stage. For instance, I first envisaged using an image that obsessed me, that of an infant lost in the chaos of war, as the starting-off point of a historical novel set in the European wars of the seventeenth century. But as time went on I saw how well it would work placed at the outbreak of the First World War. This novel eventually became The Shadow Child.

Setting is essential for creating colour and texture. The story and the landscape against which it is set are inseparably woven together. One Last Dance is threaded through with the glitter of sand and wave and sunlight and the dark pull of sea currents. The low marshes and creeks of the Blackwater estuary provide a misty and constantly changing background to The Jeweller’s Wife. Though the bulk of the narrative of All My Sisters takes place in Sheffield and London, for me the dominant image is of Marianne’s home in the high tea-country of what was then Ceylon and is now Sri Lanka. The isolated bungalow, set in a luxuriant garden planted with exotic banyans and flame trees, as well as more familiar species such as cosmos and hibiscus, seems, when Marianne first sets eyes on it, a paradise. But it quickly becomes a nightmare.

All my novels are set in the past, but the dilemmas and difficulties my characters encounter are relevant to early twenty-first century readers. Before The Storm portrays a marriage between two people from a different class. The Jeweller’s Wife describes a woman caught in a marriage with a controlling man. Laws have changed, making divorce far easier than it was in the first half of the twentieth century, and class has diminished in importance, but there are still difficult marriages. Couples still have to decide whether to go or stay, and they still have the same concerns: children, financial independence, the influence of the wider family, self-realisation. They still want somewhere to call home, somewhere to belong. A novel allows the reader to see through the eyes of another person, to experience her joy and grief as she overcomes adversity and finds happiness.

So, I’ve chosen my period and I’ve roughed out my principal characters. I’ve written a synopsis of the plot, which I’ve shared with my editor and agent, who have looked at it with an experienced eye and made invaluable suggestions for improvement. I’ve begun the historical research and have a file full of notes. I’m ready to begin.

Now I need a first line. It’s one of the most important sentences in the entire novel. Tolstoy might have been able to get away with a dull first line in War and Peace (“Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family”) but I can’t. The first line should draw the reader into the novel’s world. It should intrigue or amuse or show conflict and character.

These days, readers can see the first few pages of an ebook on Amazon. If the opening is unenticing the rest of the book might remain unread. So the first pages need to ignite the story and convey a powerful emotion – Ellen’s excitement on a crisp autumn morning, as she cycles to her new job in The Turning Point; Topaz, in Written On Glass, travelling back after years of absence to the place where she was happiest. Or Juliet, a young bride at Marsh Court, not yet able to confront the truth that her marriage is already going wrong.

It’s a great feeling, beginning a new novel. I feel as if I’m standing on a peak, looking at the new world opening up around me. I can go anywhere, with anyone… anything is possible.