Let’s be honest, when it comes to writing the fourth book in a historical/horror quintet the word that first springs to mind is not ‘inspired’, but more likely ‘fettered’.
Inspiration came a long time ago, when I came up with the idea for Twelve, the first book of The Danilov Quintet – the idea of vampires preying on soldiers already defeated by the Russian winter of 1812 as Napoleon’s Grande Armée retreated from Moscow. Inspiration came again when it struck me that I might be able to recount a century of Russian history, culminating in the Revolution itself, through the framework a more personal battle between the Danilov family and the monsters that they once invited into their homeland.
But by the fourth book – and with the fifth and final instalment now at the forefront of my mind – I realize I may be reaping the whirlwind of what I sowed a decade ago. I can’t change recorded history; I can’t write that a battle was won when in truth it was lost, that a tsar lived when in fact he died. But I can fill in the gaps.I can explain who hid the horseshoe nail that meant the horseshoe, the horse, the rider, the message and ultimately the battle were lost. And where history is uncertain I can choose the most convenient, the most mysterious option. I can’t make a tsar who died live, but if there is any historical doubt, I have the option to take the minority view – the interesting view.
In addition to being bound by recorded history, I’m also constrained by the history that I’ve created myself: the stories of my characters and the lore that I’ve formulated for them. How often has the author of a series wanted to go back and change just a sentence – just a word – in an earlier novel, either to make something possible that they realize they have forbidden, or to seem prescient regarding a twist in the story that only just occurred to them? It would be easier to deliver the 750,000 words of all five novels in one go – but my publishers wouldn’t much like that.
And who am I to whinge? Once I’ve finished book five, then I’ll be moving on to pastures new and I’ll once again be presented with nothing more than a blank page. That’s when I’ll wish I had a historical backdrop to draw from, and characters that I’d been formulating and moulding for years. The reality is that constraint is not the enemy of inspiration – constraint, in moderation, is inspiration. With too much constraint you can write nothing, but with too little you can write everything, and that’s just as bad.
One of my favourite cartoons is Chuck Jones’ The Dot and the Line, the story of a line who loves a dot, but she finds him too stiff and conventional, and prefers an unruly squiggle. And so the line learns to bend, in a controlled way, and manages to shape himself into a panoply of beautiful patterns, better than anything the amorphous squiggle can achieve. And so the line wins the dot’s heart. It’s the same with writing – with creating anything. Every rule you have to obey gives you something you have to work around, and that forces you to be inventive. In Twelve I wrote of vampires that were brutal and animalistic. Then I realized that this wouldn’t stretch to five books, so later I introduced vampires that were more devious and thoughtful. But hadn’t I broken my own rule? No, I just had to find a reason why some vampires were like that and others weren’t. And in The People’s Will I have – and the answer’s not merely utilitarian, it’s actually pretty gruesome, which is handy for a horror novel.
And while history is an obvious and inevitable constraint, it can be a direct inspiration too – particularly on a small scale. Overlooked events and, in historical terms, inconsequential bit-players can come to the fore in a work of fiction. In Thirteen Years Later it was the poet-cum-revolutionary Kondraty Fyodorovich Ryleev. In The Third Section it was the construction of the Moscow to Saint Petersburg railway. For The People’s Will the character that grabbed my interest was another revolutionary, a scientist called Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich. He was the man who designed and assembled the bombs that were to kill Tsar Aleksandr II. But it’s difficult to believe that his heart was truly in it. After his arrest, instead of preparing for his trial, he developed plans for a rocket that might take men to the moon. He even had his lawyer submit them to the government, but after Kibalchich was hanged the plans were forgotten and left undiscovered until the Revolution. By then the science had moved on, but no one could deny that Kibalchich’s ideas had been ahead of their time. A crater on the moon is named in his honour. He wasn’t a leader of the revolutionaries, and so doesn’t get more than a footnote in most history books – but he gets a bigger role in The People’s Will.
As Robert Morley put it in the closing lines of his narration of The Dot and the Line, ‘To the vector belong the spoils’.