I'm writing a sequel to my novel My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. That was set between 1908 and 1919; it started in 1917, went back, came forward again and overtook itself. It worked all right.
Why? Because History had given me a beautiful present, which brought with it period, setting, tone, character, plot and theme: a First World War field postcard, preprinted, for a wounded soldier to fill in as applicable. 'My Dear . . . , I want to tell you before any telegram arrives . . that I was admitted to . . . with a slight/serious wound in my . . . '. All I had to do was pick a battle, put my soldier in it, and then fill in the blanks, the untold story on that card. He lied, of course. You would. The story came beautifully, quickly, and easily: love and fear and lying to protect those we love, our great inability to communicate. The hideous, miraculous, disgusting origins of maxillofacial surgery. A slight wound in the stiff upper lip. It wrote itself, as they say. Time, in all senses, was on my side.
That field postcard was displayed at the Wellcome Foundation in London, opposite a photograph of a soldier whose facial wounds had been put back together by the pioneering facial surgeon Major Harold Gillies. (This is the moment when people say: 'Oh! Yes - the Guinea Pigs!' and I say: 'No, that was Archie McIndoe. This was twenty five years earlier. Though Gillies was his uncle.') My grandmother Kathleen Scott worked with Gillies, in 1917. She was a sculptor, and widow of Scott of the Antarctic; she cast in plaster the faces of the wounded, for the surgeons to measure and practice on. My first book, twenty years ago, was her biography. Researching it, I read about those wounded men in her diary, and uncovered photographs and drawings of them, and I thought: I'll come back for you. If you're feeling strong, take a look at the images at www.gilliesarchives.org.uk. Number 17 of Tonks' pastels is Corporal Riley. I stole his name, his face, his wound, and an anecdote from his nurse's memoirs, and sent him to Passchendaele. My story had found all its legs, and stood strong.
The sequel starts out handicapped by the strength those legs. It's like being son of a famous father. So far I've attempted to start it in 1939, 1938, 1920, 1940, 1943, 1919, 1870, 1900 and (briefly, foolishly) 1964. But no matter where I try to start it, whichever year I go to, my former friend, history, turns up to confuse the issue, swishing in like Leonard Cohen's Waltz, with its very own breath of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea. History, lugging the entirety of human experience in the tails of its vast and capacious cape*, declares, between bouts of coughing, 'That won't work, you know'; or, 'That was five years before - why would he suddenly mind about it now?'; or 'You're completely ignoring the Spanish Civil War. Just thought I'd mention it.' History know just what I put in volume one, and that it is written in stone.
My starting point for this sequel was the realisation that there were only twenty years between the end of the first world war and the start of the second. Twenty years - a blink of an eye! But when you've zoomed in and placed yourself and your people in there, twenty years is a very very long time. I long to leap about, five years forward here, eight years back there, willy nilly as I please, making it up. But I can't.
Firstly, I don't want to confuse the reader. I already have nine protagonists. If they're all leaping about in time it'll be a bloody flea circus. I need to cull them, not send them flying in a great chronological leapfrog. (My sentences are also too long, and something of a flea circus themselves, if I don't keep them in line. You may have noticed.)
Secondly, I studied history at university, and I never got over it. I have a terrible attachments to facts. I accept that I have to get the bus routes and the underwear right, but I'm not putting all the bus routes and underwear in. If I'm writing about 1937, well, I'm sorry, history, but Italian Unification will not be getting its own chapter.
Thirdly, and this is the killer, my characters are already snagged in history and in their own pasts. This of course is what I want to write about. But at the same time I feel as if I'm trying to fly with something dragging on my own tail.
History, please, be my friend again. Send me the catalyst, the item, the image, which will make it all hang together. Shake something out for me, from your dusty velvet folds. I'm writing now. Please don't me wait another twenty years.
PS: *Hmm. Cape/Capacious. Connection? A cape as something you keep things in? Ohhh! Keep! Is that related too? As in, what is the capacity of your capacious cape; what are you capable of keeping therein? To Skeat's Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language: capacity, capable, capacious are all from the Latin capere, to hold or contain; cape, cope and cap are from old French. Hmm. Keep is not connected; it has a K and is therefore Viking. Cope the verb means to vie with, or to fight with - from the French couper, to cut. (See coupon. Aha! Something you cut out of the paper.) But is that what coping with something is? Vying with it? Fencing? Well no wonder we're all so tired. I went to the doctor and said, 'I'm feeling a bit you know,' and she said, 'Are you not coping?'. I replied, 'Doctor, it's worse than that - I am coping.'