Creating a Text – John Harvey
What phases are involved in the creation of a text?
With me, there is almost always a central idea which initially strikes me well in advance of the actual writing – anything between nine months and three or more years – and usually in advance of any further note taking or planning. I suppose I just let it sit there and germinate. Sometimes it simply fades away instead. The idea itself might come from a newspaper article, or something I read in a book, or – well – anywhere. The book I’m hoping to start writing next January, for instance, came from a conversation I was having with another writer, Jill Dawson, a discussion of an incident that had occurred close to
where she lives; the book I’m working on now came about because the editor of an anthology I contributed to told me the central characters in my story deserved a whole book of their own and I spent a year or so casting around for some story lines in which they might be involved. In A True Light I wrote largely as a result of going to see an exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s abstract paintings at the Whitney Museum in New York.
For several years now, I’ve been nurturing the idea of writing a novel set in London’s Soho in the 50s and 60s and, aside from amassing a good number of books on the subject, I’ve written two short stories in which I’ve been ‘trying out’ some of the characters who might end up in the novel, taking them for a walk, as it were, around the block.
So, the new idea [or ideas] is [are] there in my head and I tend to leave them alone as much as I can for several months at least, hoping that once in a while a thought will spring to mind – a scene, or, more usually, a few lines of dialogue – and, if I’ve remembered to bring my pen and notebook with me, I scribble it down. [I have been known to trouble waiters or waitresses for a loan of their biros.] Interestingly – or not – these sort of ideas often come to me when I’m concentrating on something quite other, like sitting in a concert hall listening to Shostakovich or Mozart.
Then, nearer to my proposed start date – a month or so before – I’ll begin to get things better organised and work out the subject areas and themes and characters the book might include, ensuring, as far as possible that any aspects needing research are ones I’m interested in.
This, if you like, is the heavy planning stage. So, in Gone to Ground, I started reading up about 1950s British cinema and the paintings of Paula Rego, as well as talking to someone I know in the building trade about contractors and how they work; I got back in touch with someone I used to know who was head of the Nottinghamshire Fraud squad and
contacted the press department of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary to ask if they would put me in touch with an officer whom I could contact to check procedural details in that particular Force.
Now for the big moment: moving, coloured pens in hand, to the large white board I have attached to my wall and beginning to see how the story might work. Have I got enough inter-related characters ? Enough strands to my story and if so, how and where will they interconnect?
Almost always I begin by placing at the centre the key event from which much of the story will radiate : this is often at the beginning – the murder of the film academic in Gone to Ground, for instance – but not necessarily so. In Cold Light, the kidnapping of the police officer does not occur until a little over half way through the book.
Once the white board is more or less full, a mass of linked and contrasting colours, I name the day on which to start writing, think about my first chapter, my first scene, my first sentence . . .
John Harvey is a poet and novelist; in 2007 he was awarded The CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in the field of crime writing; his website is: www.mellotone.co.uk