I was cleaning the stairs. It really isn’t the sort of activity where you would expect inspiration to strike. But that’s what I was doing, polish and duster in hand, when two part-formed ideas merged and, very quickly, I worked out the main plot of my children’s novel, The Serpent House.
Ideas for stories catch us at strange places and times. Often these ideas are only half-baked, but they are mentally filed away for later use (that’s why using the commonplace book is a good habit to form).
I’d long wanted to write something based on the lives of my three maternal great-aunts, all of whom were in service in Newcastle and Cumbria in the early years of the twentieth century. When my grandmother died of tuberculosis in 1924, leaving three young children, these sisters collectively looked after their little nieces and nephew, saving their money to ensure that all went on to further education. Their stories were passed down through my mother and aunt and part of me felt an urge to pay some sort of tribute to them. A vague thought, filed away for later.
Somewhere beneath the streets of the village where I now live, Spittal, in Berwick upon Tweed, are the remains of an eleventh-century leper hospital. The village gets its name from a corruption of the word ‘hospital’. Little is truly known about the daily lives of its patient but legends abound. So that was another story I felt should be told, but again, I had no real idea as to how.
Getting back to cleaning the stairs. It’s a tiresome task because the Victorian balusters are twisted and elaborate, prone to collecting dust. But as I was poking my cloth through the little curls and loops, I imagined how some poor servant not unlike my great-aunts would have had to clean these very balusters, rather more often and certainly more thoroughly than I do. And the character of that little nineteenth century servant girl formed in my head very quickly.
The thought process led me to wonder whether, if these strange wrought iron shapes were some sort of portal to enable time travel, where might this servant child be taken? Back to the medieval leper hospital, of course, which could conceivably have once stood on the same site as the Victorian house where the character now worked.
As I got further into the research, it turned out that marrying the nineteenth and eleventh centuries worked well, because the Victorians were fascinated by romantic notions of medieval times and rather morbidly interested in illness and death.
I’m sorry to say that although I’ve cleaned the stairs a few times since (I promise!), I’ve never again been rewarded with quite such a moment of clarity. Like lightning, perhaps inspiration won’t strike in the same place twice. But like all writers, I’ll keep looking for it – anywhere and everywhere.
Where did inspiration strike for you? Does the commonplace book work well?