Article published on July 25, 2011.
The publication of a new book is an occasion to celebrate. All that hard work, put in over a lengthy period of time, has finally resulted in the appearance of a pristine new volume (or something new to download, in the case of an e-book!) It’s a time when pride is mingled with relief, as well as with hope. And it’s a time to reflect on the journey the book has taken from concept to conclusion, as well as on the promotional tasks that lie ahead.
These thoughts have been much on my mind lately, as I look ahead to the imminent launch of my own new novel. The Hanging Wood is the fifth of my Lake District Mysteries, and my fifteenth crime novel in all – the sixteenth, if I count The Lazarus Widow, which I co-wrote the late Bill Knox. I’ve also published eight non-fiction books, and edited twenty anthologies, so I am no stranger to the experience of publication. But it remains, for me, an enormously exciting time.
There is a reason why writers are so often asked the question “where do you find your ideas?” Almost everyone is fascinated by the mysterious process by which stories come into being. And because it is mysterious, that question is hard to answer in a satisfactory way. But perhaps it is easier in the case of genre fiction, where series are relatively common. A series gives a writer a very useful framework – the real challenge, after a few books, is to ensure that each new story remains fresh and that there is no lazy reliance on formula or repetition. It is surely part of the contract between writers of series and their readers that a new instalment in the series retains the elements that attracted readers in the first place, while offering something extra and worthwhile.
Trying to rise to that challenge is a pleasure rather than an ordeal. All authors worth their salt want to stretch their talents, and there are plenty of ways of keeping even the long-running series vibrant and appealing. Look at how Lee Child varies the narrative viewpoint of his thrillers about Jack Reacher, at how Peter Lovesey rings the changes in his Peter Diamond series, and at how the likes of Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and Kate Ellis have developed the lives and inter-relationships of their cast of characters over the past decade or so.
Sometimes a single idea sparks a novel – when Arthur Conan Doyle was told about the legend of a spectral hound, the result was The Hound of the Baskervilles. Often, though, the genesis of the story has multiple strands. With my current series, I switch from one location in the Lake District to another – the region is small, but rich in variety, and each different place (Keswick and Derwent Water in The Hanging Wood) offers fresh possibilities.
The idea I had for the central plot was based around the complications of sibling relationships, and this provided the foundation for many of the characters in the book. I wanted a dramatic setting and incident to get the book off to a flying start, and a strange and shocking occurrence at a farm gave me the perfect platform for the story. A great deal of the action takes place at a residential library close to the farm, and the real-life inspiration for the fictional library came, oddly enough, when I launched the previous book in the series, The Serpent Pool.
The launch took place last year, at Gladstone’s Library in North Wales. The unique setting and remarkable atmosphere made a great impression on me, and I decided to create a similar library in the Lake District. Having had the idea for an important element of the novel at my last launch, I was delighted to have the chance to return to Gladstone’s Library to launch The Hanging Wood – it seems very fitting to come full circle like that!
Launches are great fun for an author, and I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed several memorable launch events over the years. But in looking back at the eighteen months or so and it took to produce the book, I’m mindful that an author can never stand still. The book needs to be promoted, of course, and even more important, it’s time to get cracking with the next story – another part of that all-important contract between the writer and the reader.