That's one definition of inspiration: breathing in. And the opposite of "inspire" could be, accordingly, "expire", which can be rather alarming when you see it on your work ID card: Expires Aug 2009 (not that I'm that sort of ghost writer, thank you very much).
But what, then, is, inspiration, if not an intake of breath? I once discussed that with the sexiest poet in Oxford, rather longer ago than I like to think. And we decided that, for a poem, it is that thing that happens when two charged points come close enough together: the spark jumps.
Inspiration as power: I like that idea, because that is what you need, as a novelist. The spark of inspiration, and the power to keep it alight. I can remember the exact moment that inspired THE PEACOCK'S EYE ... here it is:
Yup, inspiration strikes from heaven: or to be precise, the heavens of Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside. I was on a guided tour there, and as we crowded into the stage gallery the actor Philip Bird, guiding us, was talking about players and boy players, and ting! the spark jumped.
I really didn't want this inspiration. It was February 16th, 2014. I hadn't finished the first draft of DANCE OF STONE. I didn't even know whether Manifold's editors would like it when they got it. And I knew what stories I wanted to write next, and Shakespearean players Did Not Feature. Absolutely Not. No. Go Away.
Which, of course, is why inspiration refused to quit. It's like a virus, sometimes.
So what kept inspiration alight, once Manifold's editors chose the Shakespearean doublet-ripper over the other possibilities I presented? Maybe it was Philip. Not Philip Bird above-mentioned, but Philip Sayer, an actor whom I discovered only a few years before he died in 1989. I created Philip Standage for him, and once I'd done that I couldn't let him down.
Maybe it was Nick. The first three chapters were taking shape nicely when in came Nick, with a first person voice like the pushy so-and-so he is: I should have known he wouldn't come back. But there he was, and what could I do? I let the inspiration - or Nick - take my hand, and followed where he led (sorry, Nick; I had to smooth you down into third person, in the interests of consistency - but having you barge in like that must count as inspiration, damn you).
But now I needed more than inspiration. The situation was there, and the characters, and the physical setting. The time of the setting would give me a plot of some sort, I hoped - and inspiration duly obliged, with a little help from the internet. After Queen Elizabeth came King James; and one of the few things I knew about James was, shall we say, the Duke of Buckingham; but he was rather too late for my purposes, so I started researching. James fell for beautiful men with almost monotonous regularity, and for a while inspiration handed me Robin Carr as a character; until I checked his date of birth and discovered that he was ten when the story begins (his replacement is a composite of some of James's other favourites). Somewhere in among the research, while checking a fact on Robert Cecil (who had been part of the story for ages, because I already knew about him) I found Sir Henry Howard, and inspiration went off ting! again.
What's more, there's a picture of Cecil and Howard together: here they are in the group portrait of the Somerset House Conference, a few months after the story ends. (If I had to choose between them when buying a second-hand horse, I'd go for Cecil; but I'd make damn sure to count the horse's hooves afterwards.)
This is when inspiration began to feel rather more like plate-spinning. There is, always, the fear that you may be writing on and on to no purpose; that six chapters later nobody is in the right place or time for the purposes of the story; that you haven't the foggiest what you're doing, and any minute now the whole lot will come crashing uselessly to the floor.
At this point you actually need to feed yourself inspiration; keep reading, for example. Keep giving those plates another spin. The books I've read as research would form a small library in themselves, and although Shakespeare makes only the smallest of appearances in this book, books about him have been incredibly useful. Charles Nicholls' The Lodger gave me head-tires, and Huguenot communities in London. Without James Shapiro's 1599 I should never have known about William Jaggard's The Passionate Pilgrim; without Katherine Duncan-Jones's masterly Shakespeare: an Ungentle Life I should never have known about the references to Marlowe in As You Like It; without the internet I should never have known very many things indeed. Grab inspiration from whatever source you can find; it puts a spin on your plates.
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration", or so they say Thomas Edison said. Genius isn't my aim, which is maybe why I need a larger percentage of inspiration than most. And still: what is it?
Is it the spark?
Is it the power?
Is it a virus?
Is it what keeps the plates spinning, so that you end up with an appetising cake on Wedgwood china rather than a heap of half-baked ingredients and broken crockery on the floor?
Is it one-hundredth of what it takes to make genius?
I'm going to go back to my first definition. It's breath. You might say it's life. Inspiration breathed life into Philip, and Nick, into their friends and enemies and all Elizabethan London and Jacobean Scotland. And I made it happen. Which leaves me in danger; as Pygmalion's statue did, my characters have come to life. I may not have fallen in love with them, as Pygmalion did with his, but I know this much: it's damn hard to let them go.
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THE PEACOCK'S EYE, by Jay Lewis Taylor, will be published on 1 May 2015; watch this space for more details closer to the time!