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A Novel Idea

A while ago I met the Home Secretary after she delivered a very funny speech at the annual reception of the Journalists’ Charity, which provides practical and financial support to journalists (fingers crossed they’re saving me a bed). Theresa May revealed that the House of Commons shared the concept of helping colleagues in distress, “but we just call it the House of Lords”.

She no doubt went on to talk about pressing matters of state, but by then I was distracted by the more urgent crisis of an almost-empty glass.

After I was introduced to her, Mrs May asked whether I found it difficult to come up with ideas for novels. I told her that I didn’t.

After many years as a journalist I have an instinct for stories and am constantly collecting ideas for future books, tearing them out of newspapers and magazines. At first I put them in a blue folder. Once that was full I reached for another. Finally, I put the contents of both crammed folders into a pink box, which sits snuggly in a cupboard, a comforting buffer against the horror of not having anything to write.

The habit has served me well. The idea for my first novel, The Matchmaker of Périgord, came from an article in a magazine about France. It told of a French barber who was selling his business as he could no longer make a living: his customers were so old they’d gone bald. I then imagined what he would do next.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (or Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo as it’s called in the UK) was inspired by an article I read in the Saturday Times magazine about the Beefeaters who live with their families in the Tower of London, where they’re locked in at night. I thought they would make a wonderful cast of characters and started reading guidebooks hunting for a plot. I soon discovered the royal menagerie, and on learning that the Queen was still being sent gifts of live animals in the 1970s, I decided to reinstate it.

Having set one novel in a famous historical monument, my mind turned to another – Hampton Court Palace. I already knew about its grace and favour residents – people who have been given free accommodation there by the monarch. At the time there were only three residents left, so I decided to set my third novel in the Victorian era when there were more than a hundred residents, including, rather pleasingly, a keeper of the maze who was eventually replaced by a turnstile.

The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland, which will be published in October, is my only novel that has been inspired by real-life events. I told a family friend in Scotland that I’d found a tiny pearl while scuba diving in Bahrain and she showed me a necklace of pearls from Scottish river mussels. I found the fact that you could find pearls in Scottish rivers irresistible and started thinking of a plot.

Having recently finished the edits, and seen the wonderful jacket the publishers have come up with, my mind turned to my fifth novel. I hauled down my pink box, took it to the sofa one Sunday afternoon and delved inside. An article I’d torn out of the Sunday Times caught my eye and after reading it again I knew the subject of my next novel.

Some authors claim they write because they need to. I write because I want to. An idea for a novel will set me on fire and like some weird ancient mariner tugging on your shirtsleeve, I just want to tell you what happened.

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