Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I try not to think about the last scenes of the book until the time comes to actually write them. The reason for this is that the finale of the story is always slightly different than the one I imagined when I sat down to begin the novel. If I keep too strictly to the plot I laid out in the beginning, the natural flow of the story is hobbled. It's much better to keep things maleable until as late in the game as possible. When the time comes to set those scenes, they all seem to fall into place at the same time, and usually at really inconvenient moments. I have a note book. It is made by an Italian company called 'Arte e Cuoio' and I purchased it at the airport in Brussels after I had written a story for the London Times about traveling through the Ardennes Forest. It has been with me on my travels ever since, and I have written down the places on the inside of the leather cover - Tulum, Fishguard, Krossbu, Drake Bay, Vik, l'Anse aux Meadows. But I can't always carry it, and sometimes, when the ideas come in, my notebook is tucked away some place where I can't get to it. I was once at a funeral when I figured out exactly how a book should end. I wrote the scenes down on the memorial card we had been given at the start of the service. I have scenes written down on Moroccan Dirham notes, scribbled down one night as I sat in the windowsill of my room at the Hotel Smara in Essaouira, having run out of writing paper earlier in the evening. But this most recent episode beats all the others. It happened this past Sunday, when I was out bicycling in the farmland south of the town where I live.  I ride about on a bicycle called a Guv'nor, which is made by the British company Pashley. It only has one speed and I love the simplicity of its design. The crops are being harvested now - soybeans and corn left to harden on the stalk, which is used to feed cattle in the winter. I was cycling behind one truck which was completely filled with dried corn. Thousands of kernels were flying out of the back of the truck, crackling off my helmet and striking my arms like bee stings. In the middle of this, I suddenly realized exactly how the latest book should end. But I had nothing with which to write or anything to write on. The trouble with these sudden influx of ideas is that they completely fill up your mind all at the same time. It feels a little like when your computer is suddenly inundated with pop-up screens. You can't keep them all in perfect focus in your mind and if you are't careful, some of them will disappear if you don't write them down immediately. I managed to find the stub of a pencil on the side of the road, which solved half of the problem. But I still had nothing on which to write. Eventually, I walked out into a recently harvested corn field and picked up a few dried corn husks. And I wrote the scenes down on them . My cycling jersey has three pockets built into the back and this is the first time I have ever used them. As soon as I got home, I transcribed everything onto a nice clean sheet of white paper. but I pinned the corn husk on my wall to remind myself never to leave home without pencil and paper, no matter where I'm going. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Here's another picture of my grandfather. This photo was taken in the 1930's, when he was a young police officer in the London Metropolitan Police. For the last couple of days, I had been wandering around in a haze of indecision about the last quarter of the book I'm working on now, which is the 5th in the Inspector Pekkala series. The 4th, which is called The Red Moth, is already finished and due out early in 2013. In the 5th book, Stalin gives Major Kirov, Pekkala's assistant, the task of tracking down Pekkala, who has gone missing behind the German lines just after the invasion of Russia in 1941. As with the other books, there always seems to be a moment when I am faced either with a multitude of possibilities about how things could go. The writing grinds to a halt as I try to figure out which path is best. It is very disorienting, and I have learned that the only cure is to get away from my desk for a while. Having built up momentum over months of working on a project, it is actually harder not to write than it is to sit down and write every morning. I look out my window and see people heading off to work. I heard the rumble of cars in the distance as people commute into New York City. This is during the school year. For the rest of the time, I am up in Maine and the most I am likely to hear are chainsaws buzzing somewhere in the forest. And not to be working, when everybody else is working, feels strange and sad. The most logical thing to do when I am stuck is to keep writing and to figure out the problem on the page, but I have learned the hard way that this takes a huge amount of time and energy and is less efficient than doing nothing. How can doing nothing be efficient? It sounds like a Zen koan. But I have learned to trust my head to work things out by itself, if only I can step back far enough from the story to let myself see it from a different angle. The answer always appears. And when it does, it seems so simple that my first reaction is to think - how is it possible that I didn't figure this out right at the beginning? The things which appear simplest in the final product are often the most difficult to create while the process is still ongoing. To work by not working has been one of the most complex challenges I have ever faced as a writer.