I’m sure everyone has lots of ideas for novels. Who hasn’t been approached by someone bursting to impart a ‘brilliant’ idea that’s absolutely guaranteed to be a bestseller? Some ideas do seem promising, others less so, and it goes without saying that it’s not the idea that matters so much as the implementation.
Some 20 years ago – I don’t remember precisely when – I had an idea for an historical novel that focused mostly on one character, a petty bourgeois, an artisan, a tale of both espionage and war and based on true events.
It was not, as a friend and successful fellow novelist suggested, the story of Major Andre, the head of British Army intelligence during the war of American Independence, who secured the allegiance of Benedict Arnold and was caught (by accident) and hanged, over the protests of both Lafayette and Hamilton.
That’s a splendid idea, of course, and if I knew more about the United States and its violent birth, I might be tempted to steal it from him, provided of course that I live long enough and provided that my friend is agreeable to my purloining his theme.
Anyway, two decades or so ago I tried my idea out and sent several chapters to my then agent, who set me a polite but chilling reply. ‘I don’t know how I’d begin to sell this,’ he told me. Which I understood to mean he thought it was crap, which it was.
I hadn’t the skills or the experience to make it work, especially the balance between fiction and non-fiction. There was so much I wanted to say about empire, colonialism, race, class, warfare, ballistics, horse breeding and so on, that out of sheer impatience I let it get in the way of the characters.
Now I’m trying again, though I don’t know if it will any better than the first attempt, but it’s building well, or so it seems to me, and I’m trying to restrain any impulse to intrude in the story by throwing in gobs of tedious exposition – exposition that would kill any narrative and its characters stone dead. I hope I’m succeeding.
It’s not a thriller, but a simple tale of a small, remote town under threat and caught up in much bigger, global events over which the residents have no control, although one man does try his best. The question is why. Is he brave and decent, is he driven by religious conviction – or is he foolhardy, an egotist perhaps, a romantic, a self-styled and simplistic patriot who’s deceived and manipulated into acting against his own best interest? Perhaps it’s a combination of these. I don’t know the answer as yet, though I’m eager to find out, and I think the character will only reveal his true self when sorely tested, which he certainly will be.
I have two unfinished novels like hulks at anchor, awaiting completion. I may well go back to them in a while. There’s nothing really wrong with either of them that I can tell, but both were a little too easy. If I start boring myself, I stop. If I can’t keep myself engaged, how can I expect to hook readers so that they keep turning the pages? If I don’t find the exercise challenging or difficult, I don’t see why readers should pay attention. The two incomplete novels seemed to be also-rans, and I needed to try something more arduous.
As for the latest work in progress, perhaps some readers will recognise the rather odd provisional title, taken from the King James version of Psalm 8:
‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.’
John Fullerton, March 2023