Jacqueline Winspear. Winspear is the creator of the Maisie Dobbs novels, which have won numerous awards, including the Agatha, Alex, and Macavity. Originally from Kent, England, she now lives in California. Her latest Maisie Dobbs mystery, Journey to Munich, launches tomorrow.
Where My Stories Come From
When Janet Rudolph, Editor of Mystery Readers Journal, invited me to contribute a blog post, I was thrilled. Then I read that it could be on any subject I wanted. Oh. Nothing like having a wide choice to throw me into a panic! Having consulted a few brain cells, I decided to use the blog to respond to a question often put to me: “Where do your stories come from?” In fact, it’s a question I love to hear other authors discuss, because I am always interested in what it was that inspired a writer to tell a story – what made them so curious that they create characters and put them in a certain place at a certain time, and then through the chaos of mystery?
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that a story is born when two ideas come together. And I have found it to be so – as if kindling is laid with when the writer observes something that inspires curiosity, or reads something that makes her sit back and wonder. The nugget is tucked away in the memory, or perhaps noted in a journal, or written up and put in a file marked “Ideas” on the laptop – and it sits there, waiting for the moment when fuel is added and a flame brought close to the paper. The fuel is a second idea that gels with the first. The paper is lit by the writer’s imagination, and a story leaps into life. If I look back at my novels, that premise is probably true with each book published, even with my first novel, Maisie Dobbs. That story seemed to come out of the blue, a daydream sent to entertain me while stuck in traffic. I called it my moment of “artistic grace” – and yet those moments never happen in a vacuum. I had always been interested in the history of the Great War, and particularly the role of women in the era, and how their lives changed in a matter of just a few years. As a child I had witnessed my elderly grandfather struggling with wounds sustained during that war, so I was very aware of the challenges facing returning soldiers at a time when war was something people wanted to forget. More recently I had read about special “holiday camps” set up in France immediately after the war, so that – just for a couple of weeks – men who had terrible facial wounds could be at ease without sacks over their heads, or ugly masks. I’d wondered “What would happen if such a camp was run by someone psychologically damaged by war ? What might happen.” And the story was born. I believe questions are one of the writer’s greatest tools when developing stories – “What would happen if …?” “How would I feel, if …?” or “What if these two people met … in these circumstances?” You could come up with a whole list of questions to develop character and plot.
During the year my father passed away, Elegy For Eddie was published. It seemed so right, in its way, because the novel had its roots in a true story recounted to me by my father, of a man he knew when he was a boy in the early 1930’s. “Eddie” was born in the same neighborhood, to an unwed girl of 16. She worked as a night-time cleaner at the local brewery stables. The girl gave birth to her boy whilst at work, bringing him into the world in a horse’s stall she had just replenished with fresh hay. It was suspected that in trying to stop the baby crying, she unwittingly deprived him of air, so he grew up to be “slow” – as the local people described him. But not only was the boy fiercely protected by his community, but by the horses – his mother continued to work in the stables, bringing her child to work with her under cover of darkness. He grew up around horses and became known for the almost magical way he had with any horse – indeed, as my father told it, “Eddie” was on call to all the factories and earned money gentling horses who were giving the drivers a bit of trouble. It was when Dad told me that the young man had died in suspicious circumstances that my curiosity was piqued even more – and Elegy For Eddie was born when I put that story together with the events of the day, and with what I’d learned about the planning for another war, already in motion years before 1939.
My mother died last November, just a few months before Journey To Munich was due to be published (publication date: March 29, 2016). Journey To Munich was inspired by a story she’d told me when I was a child, of a man she’d worked for during the war. Because she reminded him of his deceased daughter, he was very supportive of her when he saw her running from work in his factory each day to get to her evening classes in book-keeping, short-hand, typing and French. He promoted her to working in the office, and over time he told her his story. He had been released from a German prison camp before the war, following negotiations instigated by the British government. It transpired that what the British knew – and what the Nazis didn’t – was that the man was an inventor, not simply someone who had been in Germany on business when he was charged and incarcerated. In the run-up to another conflict, such people were of great value – and he had a very special invention tucked away in his mind. Later, when I became a published author, I knew the story would become the backdrop for a novel – I just had to wait for the right time for Maisie Dobbs to become involved.
So always keep an eye on the kindling – you never know when the fuel might be added and the flames of story leap up and catch you!
Working with the British Secret Service on an undercover mission, Maisie Dobbs is sent to Hitler’s Germany in JOURNEY TO MUNICH—the twelfth novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s New York Times bestselling series. JOURNEY TO MUNICH will be published on March 29, 2016.
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