The story of Names Of The Dead emerged from history books, my travels and conversations and things that stuck in my head over the years.
Travel allowed me to read widely, and I’ve spent about ten years dotting from job to job in various airport lounges three times a week. I’ve lived in every sort of hotel from a five star palace in The Hague to a seedy dive in Montmartre, where the lights of the Moulin Rouge flickered outside my window, the carpets were as sticky as treacle, and you could hear the whorehouse banging away next door. I slept fully clothed. With my hood up.
I noted everything down as I moved from city to city. Amsterdam, Berlin, the history of Paris and its inhabitants, and any news that I found interesting, plus the people involved. What were their fears and motivations, what drove them on, and what fear (or strength) stopped them? I used my notebooks to record these thoughts, and educate myself in what exactly was driving my characters. I wanted them to do what they wanted to do, not what I wanted them to do. It took time, and a lot of notebooks, but my characters emerged, along with their passions, strengths and fears.
Then I took what I knew, and drafted a story around the main character uncovering a historical conspiracy concerning the Holocaust. But as the character became more fully fledged, the story morphed into ‘his’ story, and why he did what he did, and what drove him on. And that led to the initial synopsis, spiced up with his discoveries and adventures.
The research process was unconstructed, eclectic and very enjoyable. I had no idea what the story would turn out to be, but I knew that it would emerge as I kept writing my journals. I wasn’t worried about focusing on any one area of research. It’s all grist to the mill. I was happy to just keep reading and writing, and knew that when I found something, I’d realise it. When I found my story, I delved deeper into the specific areas, but I didn’t want this to be a story full of exposition. The only research that I wanted to include, would be that which the main character already knew, from his education or background, or that which is relevant, and which he discovered as part of his story. I left out a lot of fascinating research because it wasn’t relevant to the story, the dialogue, or the character. One area I cut was where Swiss banks literally burned their Holocaust banking records around twenty years ago, to stop anyone finding out what they had done to the victims and their families. Fascinating, but there was no good place for it. It had to go. After quite a few attempts, and a lot of rewriting, Names Of The Dead was finally complete.
Now I’m on the road, visiting bookshops for signings, and one of the things I am most often asked is “How do you write”. The short answer is longhand, landscape, notebooks, pens and pencils. The long answer is that it took me years to find my preferred way of writing. I’ve tried straight to keyboard, voice dictation software, laptops, iPads, Blackberrys, and every kind of tech in between. But in all those years, I have gone full circle and back to my first love. Paper, pens and pencils.
My initial attempt involved A3 cartridge paper and a pile of different pens and pencils (or whatever the village stationer happened to have in stock). Why? No idea, it just felt good. It worked well, but soon I was back on the road, in airports six times a week, and living in a series of faceless hotels.
Using A3 paper wasn’t practical for a number of reasons, so I began using my old Mont Blanc fountain pen, which I’d bought years before in the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris, and searched around for a smaller sized notebook. I had used Denbigh A4 notebooks, but carrying these around was an issue, as I was attempting to travel with one bag to save a huge amount of time in airports.
So, I moved to A5 (ish) Moleskines. They were always available in airports, so I could stock up, they were good quality and easy to use. They were also much easier to carry, and the thicker sketch paper took fountain pen ink. The hardback version also provided a handy desk so I could rest it on my knee when scribbling in planes, trains and taxis.
Which brings me to writing in landscape. On one occasion, in a rush at an airport, I accidentally bought a Moleskine with blank paper. As soon as I was on the plane, I realised that, given the restrictions of space in a airplane seat, I could turn the notebook sideways, and found that it was much easier to write.
A few years on, and I have filled many Moleskines. However, Moleskines are an expensive habit, especially if you scribble in them as much as I do. Then I found a notebook from Germany, the Leuchttrum 1917. This is quality kit, with the more expensive binding that allows it to lie flat on the desk. It’s also cheaper than a Moleskine, and has more features, if you like that kind of thing. This is now my notebook of choice. And everything starts in a notebook.
Typing straight to keyboard doesn’t work for me, as I’m such a terrible typist, I spend more time correcting my typing than writing the story. I could learn to type, but life’s too short. I’m currently using Dragon software to dictate my handwriting onto my laptop, which gives an extra layer of editing. Of course, once the dictation is all done, then it’s screen work only, until the final draft where the red pen makes an appearance. Generally, Dragon gets it right about 90% of the time, which is not bad considering the inability of software to recognise a Scottish accent.
I also carry my notebook around to record my signing experiences on bookshops, and my first encounter with the pubic.
Me: "Can I interest you in a thriller, sir?"
Old Man : "No son, I'm only in here because my wife's shopping for clothes and I f****** hate clothes shops. And f****** shopping "
Me : "Fair enough, so what kind of books do you like?"
Old Man : "True life alien abduction."
The stories keep coming. One day, I may put them all in a book....