Dreaming up a novel

When I started working on my second novel, Salamander, I didn’t have any idea of where the story was going to go, or what the story was in the first place. All I knew was that it was set in the 18th century, and the main character was a printer who was trying to print an infinite book.

I had to find my way slowly into the story, which involved many false trails and blind alleys. But I wanted it that way. I wanted to create a strange, dreamlike world, to suit the fantastical nature of the printer’s quest. So I didn’t want to know much about what was going to happen ahead of the actual writing. In effect, I wanted to be the story’s first reader. I wanted to be surprised as the book came to be.

But with a working method like this, I often got stuck. Sometimes for long periods of time. I’d get my characters to a certain point and then I wouldn’t know what to do with them next. At times like that, I turned to my collage book. This was a hardcover artist’s sketch book, full of blank pages. Whenever the novel ground to a halt, I would take images from the Internet, or cut them from an old, worn-out book about the 18th century, and move them around on one of the blank pages. My goal was to think about the scene I was working toward, but from a different perspective. A visual, fragmentary perspective, like a dream. 

Eventually, after moving the images around for a while, something would click. There’d be an “aha!” moment and I’d have the idea I was looking for. Then I would take glue and fix the collage in place. So the collage book became a record of these moments of inspiration. This book of collages, in a sense, is the novel, reflected through this dreamlike, associative logic of images.

My wife eventually discovered me making these collages and she wondered why I was wasting my time with scissors and glue when I was supposed to be working on the book. I told her that I was working on the book.


Michael Burrows said...

I love these insights into the mind of an artist.

Thomas Wharton said...

I'm glad to hear it!