It’s the same every time. Blank screen. Blank mind. Blank except for one thought: I don’t know how to do this.
But the feeling is particularly strong this time. I’m starting something completely new. Not just a new book in an existing series.
It’s going to be a completely different kind of book, too, from anything I’ve previously written. Different is good. But scary, too.
This is going to be a contemporary novel, unlike the last four books I’ve written, which were all set in the nineteenth century. It’s also going to be set in England, not Russia, as they were.
It’s true that I have written a contemporary novel before. But the project I’m about to start work on is going to be very different from that. It will be a crime novel with a strong police procedural element. That’s something new for me, though obviously I’m not the first writer to attempt it.
In some ways, its present day setting, in my home country, should make it easier to write. That’s what people tell me. But somehow, I don’t think so. For one thing, I’ll be without the emotional comfort blanket of my research. All those books of background history to read, the memoirs, biographies, nineteenth century Russian novels: how will I manage without them?
Of course, there will be research. But it will be a completely different kind. Mainly, I’ll be talking to policemen. Oh, and reading the paper.
It’s harder, I think, to get the present day right than the past. We have no perspective on it. And there are more people to call you out on it. Professional historians – and even amateur enthusiasts – can shake their heads over mistakes in a historical novel. But everybody is an expert on the present day. Everybody has an experience of it that is as valid as anyone else’s. Get it wrong, and there will be no shortage of people to put you right. You’re more exposed, in other words.
I think it’s also harder to be distinctive when writing about the present day. The homogenisation of culture, with the same shops cropping up on every high street, has led to an homogenisation of experience. To write something that is not only recognisable and authentic but that also, somehow, reveals something new, is incredibly hard, it seems to me. And is also the crux of the enterprise. Making the familiar appear strange. And finding a truth, a new truth, in the process.
Added to that is the police procedural element of the story. I’m hardly the first writer to venture into this territory, and there have been countless police dramas on the TV. Even though most of us have never been inside a police station, at least not past the front desk, we’ve nevertheless formed a collective sense of what those places are probably like.
The challenge, again, is both to get it right and make it fresh.
This is what I have so far: I don’t know how to do this. I so don’t know how to do this.
But the thing that allows me to carry on is the knowledge that I’ve always started from that point. And if I didn’t feel that way, it wouldn’t be worth making the attempt.