So, I have finished my second novel. I say second – it’s actually the fourth I’ve written, including the two unpublished thrillers I wrote while trying to develop my craft to the point where it was any way readable. But this is only second of my books that will see the light of day – and I can say hands down it’s been the toughest challenge of them all. Why so?
For a start, I was less familiar with the period (Napoleon and the British Empire) than the history behind Foretold by Thunder. The Napoleonic Wars and the ‘British Century’ are phenomenally complex and tangled subjects, with a vast amount of source material to sift through. The thriller – set in the here and now – unravels a series of nineteenth century conspiracies, and I set myself the challenge of only using genuine quotes from historical figures as evidence of the entirely fictional plot. In practise, this meant hunting through the letters, diaries and public pronouncements of figures as disparate as Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, Randolph Churchill and David Livingstone in search of material I could use. I read thousands upon thousands of documents. And given that most of this source material was handwritten (typewriters had not been invented in the nineteenth century!) deciphering the script was half the battle. Thank you to Cambridge University Library for trusting me with the correspondence of these titan figures. Using their own words taken out of context, I tried to fashion the architecture of a conspiracy that did not really exist, but (hopefully!) feels completely convincing. This is a counter-factual history of the British golden age, and good golly it was a job of work.
The on-location research was gruelling too. The book races through Thailand, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Austria, London, Cambridge, Tanzania and Burundi. With the exception of Palestine, I visited all those destinations myself to location-scout the terrain first hand. Some of this was tough travel. I was in Burundi weeks before it began slipping into near civil-war, and the tension on the streets was palpable. Biggup to my esteemed travel buddy Joss Plant for holding my hand as we retraced Dr Livingstone’s footsteps on his final journey in search of the source of the Nile. Sierra Leone was no cake-walk either, but it was the most amazing country I’ve visited. (Ebola is over now – do go!) We nearly came to a sticky end at the hands of an enraged hippopotamus and also encountered bona fide child-eating cannibals.
The plot is darker, more ambitious and more complex than anything I’ve yet attempted. The writing of it took 14 months, and in the final edit I had to boil a 127,000 word manuscript down to 105,000 words. Hopefully the result is tight and fast-paced.
But the hardest thing of all was writing a sequel, as opposed to a stand-alone novel. Having brought all the threads together in Foretold by Thunder, the challenge was to unpick them and then tie them off for a second time in a satisfying manner for the reader – while upping the stakes considerably. The characters had to go on another inner journey that felt authentic. Furthermore, with the essential mystery of the Book of Thunder series revealed in the first instalment, I had to think long and hard about how to fashion a second, more intriguing mystery with the same tension.
There were times in the process where I wondered if it was ‘working’ – and questioned if I had bitten off more than I can chew. I simply don’t know what the answer is to that – it will take the verdict of impartial readers (or my brilliant editor Nikki Griffiths and equally brilliant agent Robin Wade) for me to find out. But all I can say is it felt to me like it really came together in the final edit, and I gave it my best shot.
I abandoned any semblance of having a life in the months up to Duckworth’s final deadline. It was five hours at the laptop each evening after work, and I acquired chronic back pain. (One must make a sacrifice for one’s art dahling!) It feels strange now that the manuscript has ‘gone out’, and I don’t know what to do with all this free time on my hands.
I thought that when it was done, I wouldn’t want to even look at a typewriter again. But here’s the strange thing. No sooner had I finished, than I began getting the overweening impulse to get cracking on my next project: a stand alone thriller, all new characters, new premise, new period. I’ve already rolled up my sleeves and I’m getting cracking with the research. And I have this tingly feeling in my stomach when I think about the idea, which is surely a good sign.
Lord knows if what I’ve just produced is a good read or not, but I really, really loved creating it. I’ve curated the thoughts and words of some of the most remarkable people in history, and attempted to turn them into a bone-rattling thriller. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labours.
The Napoleon Complex is due for publication in July 2016.