This is a new column, appearing monthly, in which I will chew the fat with you about being a writer in the modern world and will share with you my views on a book Iâ€™ve recently read. Sometimes the book will have a Shropshire flavour, sometimes not.
The introduction first though. I am a writer. My novels are out there to prove it – books I, II and III in the Chronicles of Eternity series set in Neroâ€™s time â€“ have enjoyed moderate success and Iâ€™m currently trying to write book IV although this is not proving easy (something I will no doubt bend your ear about later). I live in the beautiful Shropshire Hills near Church Stretton, in what the estate agents are pleased to call â€˜the golden triangleâ€™, with my husband and our aristocratic whippet, Hugo. I started writing at the age of 53. When people ask me how it happened or where the idea came from I tell them the truth; that Ray and I were on the outside of several very good bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and were talking about an idea for a film script which we (honestly) roughed out on the back of an envelope. Then I decided to flesh it out a bit and began what turned into a saga.
At the time of beginning this process, I knew where to start and what the ending was but what I did not know was what happened to the story in the meantime. When it turned out that it was a great deal more complicated than I had thought, I decided that one book would not be enough and that it would take two books to tell the tale adequately. Well, you know that I am writing book IV now, so that was a huge underestimate and there will, in fact, be five books in the series. How can this be? How could I write these books without knowing in advance how it was all going to turn out? Surely, I have plot maps all over the wall covered in complicated coloured lines and Post-It notes and files full of facts about the Roman Empire?
No, actually, I do not. When I started this epic, I had absolutely no idea how to fashion a plot, how to write dialogue, how to create dramatic tension, or make readers laugh and cry, nor did I even know how to set a novel out on the page. I have learned all of that as Iâ€™ve gone along by trial and error. I read some time ago of a famous novelist who does her writing in the lavatory and I felt very cheered by this as it reinforced my view that there is no right and wrong in the actual process, only what works for you.
I had tried writing some years before â€“ a sort of grown up Diary of Adrian Mole â€“ but it failed to excite even my imagination so I gave up. I had heard over the years of â€˜finding oneâ€™s voiceâ€™ and I searched for it but it eluded me. Then, when I began to flesh out the ideas from the back of the envelope, a voice came, unbidden but loud and clear into my head and said, â€˜The feast of Saturnalia was over by some weeks but it was still a cold, foggy day when the two men stood on the top of the hill looking down on the little town in Germania Inferiorâ€™ and I was away. Obviously, I needed to learn the tricks of the trade but I know now how the process works for me and not to force it â€“ I cannot write every day and I do not sit and stare at an empty screen; if it is not going to be a writing day, then there is always ironing or gardening to be done.
This month Iâ€™ve chosen Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre. I borrowed this book from my brother thinking that I would have a mildly interesting read on the train home but I was absolutely riveted from the first page. This is the story of Eddie Chapman, a small time, working class crook and safebreaker who found himself behind enemy lines in WWII and offered to spy for the Germans. He must have been a very resourceful character because, despite an elementary education, he learned German and French, became a favourite of Nazi High Command in Paris and persuaded them that he hated the British so much that he would be a reliable spy. Eddie began his espionage career when was parachuted from a Luftwaffe plane into a vegetable field in East Anglia before, â€˜smelling mildly of celeryâ€™, knocking on the door of a surprised farmerâ€™s wife in the middle of the night. I will not say any more about the amazing story of this remarkable man other than that it is one of those tales which would not be believed were it fiction but Ben Macintyreâ€™s long and detailed list of sources at the back of the book shows that it is true, every word of it. The contemporary pictures of Eddie Chapman featured in the book are a clue to his success as a spy â€“ piercing blue eyes and movie star good looks accentuate his charismatic gaze. Agent ZigZag is available in hardback, paperback, audio and online.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough and I hope that someone is thinking of making it into a film. *****
By J.A. Gordon
More articles by Shropshire based author J.A. Gordon:
J.A. Gordon â€“ Shropshire Writer in Residence
Discovering e-publishing and Tamara Drewe book review
The bane of Christmas Books and Living Life Without Loving the Beatles Review
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon talks about every writerâ€™s nightmare
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon â€“ rules for a good book
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon – The Loneliness of the long distance writer
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon â€“ Where do you get your ideas?
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon â€“ Jeremyâ€™s tweet and the launch party
All about J.A. Gordon
Judith Gordon is a barrister and was an in-house lawyer and long distance commuter for twenty years before redundancy made her see that there is life after the corporate rat race.
She moved to Shropshire in 2007 with her husband and adores the fabulous food and spectacular scenery although recent winters have been a bit of a trial. In addition to her writing, Judith is Strategy Director of face2face solicitors a national franchise. Judithâ€™s books are available online and from booksellers, see www.chroniclesofeternity.co.uk for more information.