At this time last year, I had just taken a few weeks off from my laptop, having written and published three books during 2017, as well as another couple of, as yet, unpublished short stories.
I felt relatively new at the writing gig still, but was enjoying both the research and writing as well as, to only a slightly lesser degree; the editing, proofing typesetting and marketing of my work, and having successfully completed four novels in three to four months each, I was beginning to feel like this was a good timescale and rate of output I could maintain.
Unknown to me at the time, that was about change, because my next project was the third and final part of my Flames of Time historical/magical realism trilogy and it would take me a whole twelve months to get to any kind of finished state.
This was the culminating book, which I’d originally plotted out in 2006, when I’d finally run out patience with trying to write without planning or plotting the story, otherwise known as the ‘pantsing’ approach.
Instead, I gave myself one full month to plot the story from end to end over three novels, before I allowed myself to write the first word of the story proper.
Well, the story plotting worked, and while it took me nearly three years to write the first book, it only took me four months to write the second, so I was hoping the third would be more like the second than the first.
Optimistic, I started writing in late January 2018, knocking out the first couple of chapters in no time, allowing the now familiar characters to write their own story, breaking off for a few hours here and there to research the odd detail.
Another few weeks passed and it was toward the end of February 2018 I had to admit things were going slowly, the research was proving a little more difficult than any I’d done previously, but I persevered, condensing down pages of notes to just a few pages of written novel.
My characters travelled from Turkey, passed Anatolia and through Iran, up into central Asia, with its rich history of early human habitation around the Oxus river civilisation and such evocatively named places as Samarkand and Tashkent, Bukhara, the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan mountains.
Of course my adventurers couldn’t travel through this Trans-Caspian landscape without visiting some of these evocatively named places and enriching the story with glimpses of those onion shaped domes and minarets, or of horse and camel trade-caravans winding their way through dry dusty hills and then fertile plains where the air is redolent with the scent of ripening peaches.
How could I not love this kind of research and the writing it was conjuring from within me. This was why I’d started authoring novels in the first place, for the simple pleasure of sending out my imagination to follow paths rarely trodden, and visit places seldom seen.
If I’m honest, as I slowly wrote my way through the lands known to ancient Alexander as Bactria, I became a little bit intoxicated with the place and felt reluctant for my characters to move on, but move on they must, and so my attention drifted westward through the Khyber Pass and Peshawar and into that land fringed by the Himalaya, northern India.
John Keay’s, acclaimed book entitled ‘India – A History’ took me by the metaphoric hand and ushered me over the border into that vast country, and a time before the Raj and Moghuls, when the Gangetic plain, the breadbasket of India was still a lush and never-ending forest full of elephant and musk deer, of long tailed leopards and Blake’s fearfully symmetric tygers.
But if I’d become intoxicated in my imaginative travels through the Stan’s of Bactria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, then what kind of peril would I be in while attempting to traverse India.
Surely I was lost before I’d even begun. Back in the real world February and March had given way to April, May and June before my characters had even exited the Khyber Pass, and with barely a quarter of the book written I began to be concerned about when I might return if I delved too far into any of research rabbit-holes which liberally dotted my path.
To make matters worse, while diving into the history of India, I stumbled upon the seed of an idea for the next book in another series I’ve been writing, and the more I tried to ignore it, the more that seed seemed to flourish and grow, until eventually, with the heat of an unexpectedly good British summer thumping down outside my window, I gave in and decided to give my imagination a couple of weeks away from the heat and humidity of an Indian summer to dream and dance its way into a Japanese winter, where amongst the snow filled forests I plotted out the story that had been besieging me.
With more than half of my Indian novel to write and now an excitingly new and different plot for another story just begging to be started I was more than drunk on my writing and research I was enamoured, obsessed, almost manic for more of it.
However, two weeks among the cooling snow was enough to cool my creative fever and re-energise my heat-struck imagination, so much so, that with the Japanese plot completed I found my thoughts slowly calming and then naturally drifting on the warm evening breezes back to India.
I was a stranger in a strange land when I returned, wide-eyed and confused at how alien and yet familiar the product of my reading and research was. I read of festivals and faith, of fire ceremonies and mythology, the origins of Sanskrit and great earthquakes that diverted mighty rivers from their courses; changing fertile and verdant land barren, and vice versa. I travelled into the Himalaya and visited tea plantations in Darjeeling and Assam where I encountered the cruelty and exploitation of my own British forebears, of massacres, rebellions, and the wholly disproportionate brute force of the Empire’s response. I read of the British East India Company and the Raj, followed by the flowering of India’s independence movement and then of the tragic segregation of Pakistan and India with all the tensions that then ensued.
Unwilling to travel any closer to the present day, I turned about and walked instead amongst the abandoned streets of antique Mohenjo-Daro and the great Indus Valley or Harrapan civilisations that managed and almost worshipped the water they depended on for life.
Slowly, from the wealth of information I’d pulled together I managed find my thread again, sending my characters north into the Himalaya and then east along the Ganges, before finally following them as they leap-frogged their way from New Delhi while it was still very new, to Allahabad and ancient Varanasi.
I wove fragments from a hundred different sources into the story, adding layers of colour and scent, of faith and fire and legend, of spice and incense, history and imagination. It was a heady cocktail, which overwhelmed and invigorated in equal measure.
October ran into November, but finally, after much longer than I’d ever anticipated I could see the end of the journey, and with it the inevitable sadness that would come with the end of the story and the time spent with these, my first and most loved of all my characters.
Reluctant as I was for the story to end, there is a certain point in every tale where the momentum which has been built will carry you over the finish line whether you go willingly or not, where the hill becomes a steep descent and there’s just no stopping. For me it’s usually the two thirds to three quarters point, between sixty and eighty thousand words of one hundred thousand word novel, and by early November I’d reached that point.
The next few weeks became a whirl, odd gems still emerged from my reading and research, but I’d already amassed more wealth than I’d need to finish the story, and then before I knew it, in early December the job was done, the first draft was complete, the story I’d started twelve years earlier was finished, and in way that I was more than pleased with.
There was still a lot to be done of course to get it into a readable state. The first edit and read through will always be my own to complete, then there’s the commissioning of the book cover and drawing of maps, the typesetting of forty plus chapters into a single book shaped lump, the back cover blurb and all the front matter.
December with its Christmas and New Year’s festivities melted away and with it the editing was completed, the cover art was delivered and the typesetting was begun, leaving just the maps for me to draw, a task which over the previous two books in the trilogy I’d come to almost enjoy.
But a well exercised imagination can’t finish its journey and then sit comfortably idle with no period of transition, and so, as I got half way through my map making, plotting the location of Samarkand and drawing in the Mountains of Heaven, a scene from a distant future sprang fully formed into my mind. An adventure among the stars, with characters wholly different to those I’d so recently left behind.
A full week of trying to ignore it, and the lack of attention had fed and nourished the seed of an idea into something large and leafy, so, toward the middle of January I put the maps down for a few days to plot out the story that had grown from that insistent little idea that had been niggling away at me.
Thankfully it was done in a few days this time, and before the end of January I was able to finish drawing my maps, before inserting them into the manuscript, compiling it with the cover and front matter into a finished thing. A final check over as we got into February, and then yesterday the third day of February, I ordered my proof copies from the printers that will go to my second line of editors.
The end is so close now I can as they saying goes ‘almost taste it’, but it’s also the stage that needs to take the proper time. My editors will all typically get the edited copy back to me within a month, and so, with corrections made, a final finished copy will come off the printing press sometime between the middle and end of March 2019, and my trilogy will finally be complete.
Of course between now and when the edited proofs come back, my imagination won’t be able to sit idle, at some point I’ll feel the allure of those snow covered Japanese hillsides, and the outline I penned in the heat of last summer will begin to take a more solid shape.
Finally, while I can’t pretend that a journey of this length and distance isn’t exhausting, and that a quick three or four months to turn around my Japanese story would be pleasant, I also can’t deny I’ve enjoyed my journey through Asia and India, and can only hope to find an equally engaging story to research and write again before too much longer.