The cottage

I cannot read books while writing. It really is impossible. The way a writer writes gets into the rhythms of my mind, and his cadences and use of language, all influence what I try to write for myself. It’s bad enough having to read quite so many historical books with each novel (by way of demonstration, I can count forty nine books which are scattered over my desk just now. That’s not all the books I’ve read for this novel, just the ones I’ve referred to most of all. The others are all back on their shelves.

A short while ago, I was glancing through some twitter comments and learned that a woman I knew vaguely as a reviewer was boasting (sort of) about her reading. She was committing to reading three books per week, I think it was. And I commented that I wished I had time. Full of the pomposity of youth, she assured me that I had to ‘make time’. Aha. Perhaps when she has children too, she will learn the sheer, ludicrous, wishful thinking of that comment.

Country scenes always inspire me

I used to read four books a week quite regularly. Not any more. My books take too much brain power, first with the planning (which seems pointless since the damn plot has to go out the window as soon as you start typing), then the research (which always sucks you in so that you lose another two weeks while searching for references to the quality of medieval floor tiles or glass-blowing in the 1300s) and finally, of course, there’s the writing. And then the editing. And the copyedit and the proofing.

Writing two books a year, I’m pretty proud to be able to read one or two books a month.

Time was, I would get review books from Tangled Web and Shots Magazine. Sadly, that’s had to end now, too. Just not enough hours in the day. However, I am this year helping to judge a thriller prize. I really am a twit on occasion.

There is another problem with reading.

I don’t read medieval stories. No. Never. And I don’t tend to read crime much either. ‘WHY?’ my brother asked recently, appalled by the fact I hadn’t read Da Vinci or Girl With a Dragon Tattoo.

Simple. At some point in the future, I will be accused of plagiarising their works. There’s no point denying it. I know my brain is pretty gormless at the best of times. If I read a really good story, excellent plot etc, I will log it. And in twenty odd years, when I’m even more gaga than now, I’ll think up a fabulous plot and put it down, and the first critic to pick it up will declare me a plagiarist for duplicating the story of Robinson Crusoe or something.

Many of my friends state that they often receive story ideas from fans. I do too. Any such plots and ideas are always discarded, burnt, and unread. Because we like to think up our own stories, and not run the risk of someone later suing us for stealing their storylines (when the book’s been sold to a million people, not before, of course. They want to sue for a reasonable amount).

What DOES inspire, is the idea of places. The feel, the smell, the light about them, the sounds. Everything.

Inspiring countryside

My first books were all based on two areas of Devon, really. One was the land from Fursdon over to Exeter and back to Crediton. There’s an easy reason why. Once a month or so I’d visit, and my favourite place in the world just then was a beautiful cottage near Sandford, a few miles from Crediton.

It was a (perhaps) fourteenth century long house.  Once it had been twice as long, with the cattle held in one half, the people in the other. A screens passage separated the sitting room from the front door and hall. That screen itself must have been six hundred years old, perhaps more. The second half of the place had fallen, as so many did – their construction standards weren’t too hot in those days – but the rest has survived remarkably well.

For many years it would have been a pretty well-off peasant’s house. Then, sixty odd years ago, there were moves to break up the old landowner’s estates and let the smaller farmers take their own land. Death duties, inheritance taxes, all did for the old families. The last owner of Creedy Hall outside Crediton, died in the Bahamas after selling off the estates that remained. He couldn’t afford the place. His family had been there since William conquered England in 1066.

Before he left, the cottage had been home to one of his cattle men. Afterwards it was bought up by the Nott family. They were typical industrious Devon folk. Father Nott dug out the hill behind the house and made a garage. He erected an extension, and he farmed a good sized herd of beef and dairy cattle. He sold off the old house in the 1960s when he had a new house built. A modern, square, red-brick house with good metal window frames and running water.

I never liked that place.

The old Cattleman's house before new thatch, paint, and insides!

But the old house, that was different. I could sit at the window and watch the shadows of the clouds passing over the fields before it. I could see the different crops being planted, growing and being harvested. There was no road noise, no television. Even radio was dodgy. The mobile phones on two services might, occasionally, work if you stood in the field behind pointing roughly southwest. Elsewhere? forget it.

That was the house in which I wrote the beginnings of six or seven books, all but one consigned now to the litter bin. The one remaining survivor, of course, was Last Templar. Which was fitting, because I sort of stole the house to be Simon Puttock’s first home.

To find a place that will give an author the mood, the feeling of place, and the desire to write, that is a very special thing. I’ve been inordinately lucky, and misfortunate, to have a mind that can effortlessly flutter from one perfectly sensible idea to another, without consciously noting any locations en route. So this morning, while driving to some woods to walk the dogs, I had a brilliant idea for a story. I think. It had gone by the time I parked.

Inspiring views

Walking is inspirational to me. In woods today, with the soft mulch of rotting leaves underfoot, the silence all around me, I was able to think more deeply about the current story (just finished the first pass, you’ll be glad to hear) and also ramble through some outlines for newer plots and tales.

It is the same when I walk on Dartmoor. The peace gives my mind room to wander, and the views tend to give me a great sense of location for historical books, as well as a genuine respect for the weather. We do get a lot of it down here.

Colours can inspire, as can sounds. I cannot listen to modern music while writing medieval stories. It doesn’t work. But stick on bransles or a saltarello, and I can write a thousand words an hour. Yes, I have the equivalent of verbal diarrhoea through my finger tips. An embarrassing condition, but one I can live with!

And friends inspire. I was delighted yesterday when a friend offered to read a book of mine with a view to putting a comment on the front, if it gets into print. It’s enormously kind and generous of other writers to give their time for such things, and his kindness gave me a roll for several hours. In fact, it hasn’t left me yet, twenty four hours later.

But the biggest influences must have been all those books I read when I was young. Conan-Doyle, Agatha Christie, HH Munro, Richmal Crompton, and all the others. They are what inspired me to write, after all.

Well, them and the cottage. I just wish I could afford it now – sadly it’s being rented for holidays in Devon now. If I could, I’d buy it. It’s lovely!

10 Responses to “Inspirations”
  1. taureanw says:

    Great post!
    Usually when I’m reading a good book I end up writing more (doesn’t mean what I write is any good, but the quanity is up).
    Also I’m about to have a child and I am sure my reading (and writing) will be affected GREATLY. :-)


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Couldn’t agree more with you re reading other people’s work on the subject you are involved with Michael. Reference books yes, similar novels, short stories, definitely no.

    Plus, when I’m writing, my head is so full of what’s happening on the screen in front of me, I don’t even have time to read a newspaper. But, I still carry on buying books I want to read sometime in the future. :)


    • Do you also have the despair in the eyes of your spouse when she tries to get you to concentrate on something in the present day in real life? Miracle any authors remain married, I reckon …


  3. Ann Slicer says:

    Micheal I really enjoyed your write up on your inspiration to write your first books,I know the feeling of being in a cottage with no elecricity[but we have a generator]no water[but piped in spring water] and the solitude,walking in the forest and enjoying walking my dog,just with my own thoughts and enjoying birds and wildlife,I hope you achive your dream of owning that lovley cottage,it looks wonderful


    • Hi, Ann, thanks for the comments. I would easily be able to cope with spring water and no electricity, I think. A large bank of photo cells to work the computer, wood from the forest to fire the oven . . . may not get so much work done then, though!


  4. Jack Eason says:

    Afternoon Michael, I’m in need of a moments relaxation from my current WIP, an anthology. So I just downloaded the excerpt for your novel “The Oath”. While I’m not mad keen on the historical period, I love reading about the Templars. :)


    • Thanks for the look, Jack. Hadn’t thought of checking that myself yet – I’ll go take a squint myself, now you’ve reminded me. It’s one thing publishers haven’t sorted yet: how to give free copies to authors of their ebooks. Only one download, but it’d be nice to have it! Thanks for the comment – hope your WIP goes well.


  5. Old Trooper says:

    It is amazing what one can miss … since this is well into 2014. Good stuff!


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