Claire Dyer’s poetry collection, Eleven Rooms, is published by Two Rivers Press. Her novels The Moment and The Perfect Affair and her short story, Falling for Gatsby, are published by Quercus. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her website is: www.clairedyer.com
Author Shelley Harris and I recently ran a creative writing workshop entitled ‘Sharp Objects and Curious Places’. The idea for the workshop came about because both her novel, ‘Jubilee’, and my novel, ‘The Perfect Affair’ were inspired by specific objects and, in my case, a specific place too.
In advance of the workshop we asked delegates to bring an object with them which, when they arrived, we got them to swap with their neighbour. We then encouraged them to write about the new object they’d received for a short while. The results were amazing! Having come prepared to write about their own objects, they’ been faced with a 180° U-turn. However, what we found was that these new objects unleashed stories these writers never knew they had in them; the reading back section of the workshop was dynamite!
The same thing had happened to me with ‘The Perfect Affair’. I’d like to say the novel was inspired by any of the following: flowers, champagne, a moonlit walk on the shore. But it didn’t. The story started with a photograph.
The photograph was of an interior of a room. The windows in this room looked out over the rooftops of a daytime London. There were tables in the room and these were laden with glasses and trays of food. There were smartly-dressed people standing in clusters around the room. The picture was in black and white and, on the back, someone had written details of the occasion (a reception held to celebrate the launch of a ship), and the date (1962). To a casual observer, the scene looked very innocent and ordinary …
However, there was something about the way two of the people in the photograph were standing that made me wonder if the occasion was innocent or ordinary at all. One of these people was a man. He was holding a glass of wine and talking to someone. He had one hand raised as if in the process of explaining something and he was smiling. The other person who’d caught my eye was a woman standing next to one of the tables. She was leaning up against it, her hand laid flat on its surface as if it was the only thing holding her up. She was looking at the man as if her heart was breaking.
I knew these two people weren’t married to one another because the elderly lady showing me the photograph then told me who they were. One was herself. The other was her boss. She pointed to her likeness and asked, ‘Can you tell it’s me? I’ve changed a bit, haven’t I?’
Of course I told her I recognised her instantly and that she hadn’t changed much at all, but my heart was pounding as if I’d just been asked to share her most precious secret. That she’d loved this man was, I believed, indisputable. That she had never told anyone was also, I believed, indisputable.
And so, the story of my character Rose’s perfect affair was born.
A little while after this, while driving near to my home, I passed by a house with amazing stained-glass panels in its front door. I started to think then about doorways as being the portals by which we enter and leave places, about them as the custodians of our idea of home and what it would be like to meet a stranger on a doorstep. Following this, the whole idea of doors opening and doors closing, of temptation and opportunity emerged and started to coalesce into another story to run alongside Rose’s.
And so, the story of my character Eve’s perfect affair was born.
Of course there was nothing perfect about either Rose’s or Eve’s affair, as the shout line of my novel attests. However, what this experience taught me is that ideas for novels can come from the most unassuming and unexpected things and places. And, if ever I’m stuck with my fingers stationary over my keyboard, I will look about me and write about an object in my house or a place I remember or want to visit, and I find the words flow again.
I also take heart from the many other novelists who have found inspiration this way. For example, Rosanna Ley in ‘Return to Mandalay’, where an ancient Burmese chinthe led not only to her novel, but took her back to unearth a story in her own family’s past. And there’s Emylia Hall’s novel, ‘The Book of Summers’, where a daughter comes to understand her long-estranged and now-deceased mother through a scrapbook stuffed with photographs and mementoes recording seven glorious childhood summers in rural Hungary. There are, of course, countless other examples.
And sometimes, as with these novelists and for Shelley Harris and myself, such prompts can result in a novel. Other times, they remain loosening up exercises for which I, for one, am on occasions very grateful indeed!