Generally, I spend as much time with my writing as
circumstances allow. On those days when I also have to earn my living, this
could be about two hours. When I have no other demands on my time, this could
be all my waking hours, which, they say, is not a good thing. Whatever the
case, my writing always gets its mandatory minimum thirty minutes each day. And if you think that means I'm highly disciplined, you would be wrong.
When I say, “spend time with my writing”, this does not mean banging out reams and reams of prose. I could be discussing with someone, reading a book or an essay, having a debate in my head, doing research, mulling something over, reworking what’s already written, or banging out prose, which, even on the very best of days, is never reams and reams. Generally, several new ideas and one well-crafted paragraph is what I can achieve in a day and that makes for a good day.
A ‘day’ could start or end at any point on the clock. The best is when I have a good night’s sleep and wake up at around five in the morning with an idea in my head. When it’s a radical, new idea, then I can look forward to a good few weeks of excitement. Usually, though, it’s a new take on something that’s been ticking away in there somewhere. I’d get up, sit at my desk with a mug of sweet tea and calmly work through the implications of that new take. What can be connected? What needs to be uncoupled? What acquires another layer of meaning? What problems are solved? What new problems are created? How does this help my syntax? How does this help my imagery? What will I have to cut? Can I, or do I, need to reintroduce something that I’ve already scrapped? and so on, though not necessarily in any systematic way. By seven, I stop, either because I’m too hungry to concentrate or because it’s time to get ready for work.
However, this idyllic image can be completely inverted if I happen to go to bed with a problem churning over in my head. I can guarantee that I’d wake up at about two in the morning with the solution fully-formed hovering mid-air right before my eyes. If I didn’t start writing straight-away, then the following I can also guarantee: I will not get back to sleep that night, because; the idea will evolve very rapidly, throwing up the most interesting allusions, making the most exciting connections, crafting itself in the most eloquent phrases and dialogue with great syntax and marvellous imagery; and by morning I’ll have forgotten it all—for good. So…
…my laptop is always within reach of my bed and, thanks to my Mac’s backlit keyboard, if there’s anyone close by who could be woken, she won’t be (sometimes that doesn’t work, though). I’d write in half-sentences, half-phrases and half-words simply because the thoughts would be coming like a herd of wild horses set free. I’m aware of when I fail to catch one of these stampeding thoughts, but I have to let it go for fear of losing the next one that’s already slipping away too. That’s how it goes. If I'm still at it after half an hour, then I'm going to be at it till four or five in the morning. That's when I give in, get up and head for my desk. The alternative would be an aching back. The upside of this, though, is that I’d be feeding off these ideas all day. If they kept coming during the course of the day, I’d be firing off cryptic emails to myself every now and again—thank God for smartphones. If I can, I’d then grab a quiet hour in the evening to fill in the blanks left since that morning. Then my mind and soul are calm and I’ll sleep that night.
While many ideas come from within the story itself, the sources are nevertheless many and varied. From snippets of conversation picked up on a bus, to an architectural feature in a medieval ruin to a similarity between a hieroglyph and a certain Arabic character to why I find a particular feeling confusing to the sound of a language I can’t identify to wondering why someone had behaved towards me in a particular way. The material is everywhere and available all the time.
But it doesn’t only happen spontaneously. I actively seek input from others. My friends, some of whom are writers, all of whom are avid readers, seem to enjoy watching my stories unfold. That’s just as well. I don’t think I’d be able to write without constantly bouncing ideas off other people. I read tracts out loud to my friends and ask them for frank critique. They oblige me. From time to time they recommend things that they’ve read and think will be helpful. I always learn from such pointers. The greatest eye-opener so far has been Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This miracle of a book has brought me to the threshold of the House of Writers. Now, to enter, all I need to do is take the next step.
Everyone can teach me something, whether directly or indirectly. To my mind, that’s one of the perks that come with being human. We are not limited to learning from burning our fingers. We can also speculate as well as actively seek out knowledge, “even as far as China,” as the Prophet Muhammed urged his followers. So, given that to go there and find out is a good idea regardless of whether one is a follower of Muhammed or not, and given that in China they say to travel is better than to read a book, then, naturally, to experience for myself the places I'm trying to write about is better than to merely read up about them.
This is one of the reasons I find myself in China, where I intend to explore as much of Tomoe's journey along the Chinese part of the Silk Road as possible. From here I also hope to visit western and northern Honshu, the main island of Japan, as well as go to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. Time and money permitting, I'd like to travel the stretch of the Ganges between Allahabad and Veranasi, as well as visit Nalanda, further east. I've already done fairly extensive traveling in Morocco (as you'll have read on the home page) and Andalusia. The two trips to Istanbul (the Constantinople of my story) need to be supplemented with one more. The story also calls for a trip each to Sicily and Tunisia. The Syrian Civil War affects me for the same reasons it does any decent human being, but it also puts a fairly large spanner in the works. Combined with the insecurity of Iraq and the realities of Palestine, that pretty much puts paid to any dreams of travel to what was then as-Shams (Lebanon and Syria), al-Jazeera (Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Anatolia) and Baghdad. I would consider myself very lucky indeed, if I were able to visit Hamadan and Nishapur in Iran and Tibesti in the Sahara.
Because I so enjoy the great sweep of history, I fear I may see only a stunted humanity in my characters. I worry that instead of history being there to explain humans, my humans will be there to explain history. As you may already have guessed, this is implicated in my uneasiness with Rationalism and with the scientific method. I think I have the potential to be a writer because I can see what the scientific method has done both to society and to me. I am, in my own clumsy way, trying to compensate for its effects. A passage from Wikipedia, no less, helped me to articulate this:
“The English word natron is a French cognate derived from the Spanish natrón through Greek νίτρον nitron, which derived from the Ancient Egyptian word nṯry ‘natron’. The modern chemical symbol for sodium, Na, is an abbreviation of that element's New Latin name natrium, which was derived from natron which refers to Wadi El Natrun or natron valley in Egypt from which natron was mined in ancient Egypt for use in burial rites.”
That’s how it goes inside my skull, except that at the same time, I’m also experiencing the smell of cognac and coffee in Paris, interest in the role of translation in the creation of Spanish, an almost mystical sense of antiquity, images of musty second-hand bookshops run by quiet old men who probably know more than all their customers and browsers put together, ambivalent feelings towards the British Museum, resentment at the Luxor Obelisk being in Paris, admiration for the return and restoration of the Axum Obelisk while at the same time also wishing the British had taken the Bamiyan Buddhas to London when they had the chance, a little pride that the name for sodium in the language in which I’d learnt chemistry is the same as its name in Latin, memories of uncomfortable heat in my school classroom and my daily migraines, imagining the searing wadi in the south-western corner of Egypt where an important scene in Working Title #1 is set. Natron and burial sites—fantastic! Fantastic! I know I couldn’t have made all this up if I’d tried. The real excitement, sometimes hard to contain, lies in the undifferentiated thinking-feeling, the internal experience of knowing. Annie Dillard writes, “Language can[not] cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience.” Despite being aware of that, I keep trying. All of this suggests to me that I might be on the right track.
As a teacher of English for Academic Purposes, I warn my students to approach Wikipedia with caution. As a writer of historical fiction, I dive straight in. Within a few clicks I make connections that it'd otherwise take months to make. I then know exactly which journals (already at my fingertips) and books I have to target. I can read reviews right there. My other important source is the BBC Radio Four series In Our Time, available in podcasts, as are several other good literature series from the BBC and other sources. I can buy e-books in an instant and do, much faster than I'm able to get through them, frustratingly. Technically, there's been no better time to be a writer. And then, naturally, there's my real collection of real books on real shelves, their beauty and inspiration timeless. the simple act of leafing through pages I hadn't touched for months, sometimes years, is like a grounding, a reminder.
I do face particular technical challenges in writing about the times and places in which the novel is set. The most serious is calendars. There were different calendars in use in Japan, China, India, the Caliphates and Christendom. I often have to covert between the Hijri and Julian calendars. A particular complication with such conversions is that whereas the Julian day runs from midnight to midnight, the Hijri day runs from maghrib (sunset) to maghrib. So it is not always clear which Julian day corresponds to a particular Hijri day. Most of the time this doesn't matter, but when it involves either a Julian Sunday or a Hijri Friday, then it does. Also, Japanese years (lunar) were sequenced within named eras denoted arbitrarily according to the start of a particular Emperor's reign (more or less) or a significant unpredicted event. I find this particularly confusing, especially as the first year of an era runs till the next lunar new year, so could last anything from one day to one year. And these were only the official eras. There were parallel, unofficial named eras in use at the same time. I also struggle when different sources give different dates (era, year, month) for the same event or an era name changes during a single reign. I haven't even started on the Chinese sexagenary calendar yet. The simplest bit seems to be that the Japanese and Chinese 'hour' equated to two Julian hours.
To help with multiple calendars, I have a handy little multi-calendar converter produced by Formilab on my computer. Although it doesn't cover Indian, Chinese and Japanese historic calendars, it is, nevertheless, extremely useful because it covers Julian, Gregorian, Hijri and Hebrew (which, to date, I've not yet had to use). Another extremely useful resource has been the NASA's Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses, that gives complete details of every solar eclipse everywhere on Earth going back 4000 years.
And then, of course, there's Google Earth. To have the entire world available at my fingertips, from planet-scale to people-scale, has become an indispensable facility. I find it very useful to be able to switch between topographical features and political boundaries and to be able to combine them when planning a field trip (it helps to know what country a particular spot is in today, if I want to go there). The absence of political/administrative boundaries gives a very different kind of landscape to work with and I find it easier to imagine engaging in the act of moving across it. The lizard scurrying away that I catch in the corner of my eye, the smell of animal urine, something dropping down through the leaves and hitting the ground, but not catching what it was, contemplating the last time anyone might've been this way, who it might have been and where they might've been on their way to and why, unsure about whether that high-pitched sound is an insect or just ringing in my ears. The sun-bleached skull of a bird that I squat down to inspect, considering whether to hold onto it for its beauty or discard it because I'm certain to find so many more later. Then finding I can only stand up again by pressing my hands down onto my knees. Is the load on my back becoming too much or am I just getting old? Topographical maps have so much life and texture and give so much life and texture. Political maps seem to diminish the earth and devalue our human relationship to it and through that, limit and condition my imagination. I'm only really sensing this now for the first time, even though I have long had a passion for maps.
At school we were taught that the lines on political maps, even the lines of latitude and longitude, are imaginary. They don't really exist of the surface of the planet. So, in theory, this should leave topography intact. Except in Palestine, where some of the most important scenes of Working Title #1 play themselves out. In Palestine, the 'imaginary' lines of its political maps are more real, more physical, than its hills and rivers. A giant headless chicken carrying a leaking bucket of acid had criss-crossed all over Palestine. The lines its dripping acid drew on the landscape gouged their way into hill, valley, river, road, lake and home with merciless indifference, leaving the topography of Palestine the physical manifestation of the imaginary lines on its political map. Its physical features have become imaginary. You cannot cross that valley because there is no valley that you can cross. That olive grove over there doesn't exist. Water flows uphill—you'd better believe it. A two-mile journey is twenty-two miles long—please check your odometer. In this Daliesque landscape, Google Earth is of no use to me. I have to find a close simile for the dramatic night-time high-speed horse ride from Jerusalem to Jaffa. I have to find other ways of imagining the spy surveying the Battle of Hattin. This profound distortion of reality will come in useful elsewhere, I'm sure—I hope.
Lastly, there's the challenge of transliteration, especially between Arabic and English and between Chinese and English. I often encounter different spellings for the same Arabic words and names. The problem is greater the other way. In the case of Arabic words or names that I first encounter in English, it can be tricky to pin down the original Arabic word or name, especially as there are Arabic sounds that cannot be rendered in English.
The same Chinese names can also appear in different English transliterations, e.g., Suzhou and Soochow. If I were not familiar with this place, I might assume they were two different places. There are other, more general confusions about nomenclature, e.g., the numerals today associated with the Latin script are commonly referred to as 'Arabic' numerals, when they are actually Indian numerals. Arabic uses a different system of numerals, albeit also derived from Indian numerals. It's all good fun!
I would find a comprehensive list of major natural disasters, especially floods, droughts, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, that affected Europe, north Africa and Asia over the period 1050-1250 very useful indeed. So far, my searches have turns up only bits and pieces. If anyone can help with some pointers, I'd be most grateful.
I said on the Home page that this website is a version of what I have going on in Scrivener, on my computer. There I work and rework and rework what I've written. Included with each project, this website offers extracts from that project. The site will show the evolution of those extracts, including their extinction, if such is to be their fate. They are work in progress and I would welcome any thoughts on them that you'd care to share with me.
So, at the heart of my whole writing world, pulling all this stuff together, sits Scrivener. It's like an amazing djinni that brings places to me instead of my having to go there. I might be in the depths of a scene somewhere near the end of the book when I realise that the scene would work better if something were changed in, or added to, a scene near the beginning. Two seconds later, I have both scenes on my screen, allowing me to craft them till they resonate with each other, vibrating at the same frequency, bathed in the same hues.
In one respect, I'm actually writing this novel in the same way I produced my doctoral dissertation. I never worked in series, chapter-by-chapter, but in parallel, everywhere at the same time. Only this time its easier. Back then, as it happens, I was one of the first people in the UK to own a feasible laptop (Macintosh PowerBook 100), which spared me the drudgery of having to pick my way across a floor covered in bits of paper, trying to figure out what goes where. But still, back then the machine did what I wanted it to do, now it knows what I want.
I use a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a retina screen, backlit keyboard, flash memory and a 10-hour battery. It's as thin as the thick part of a MacBook Air, weighs too little for me to remember and slips easily into most of my bags. Most of the time, I travel without the power unit. Except for the books on my bookshelf and the maps not on my wall, everything, that is, my ideas, the manuscript, the research, are all just a few clicks away. Everything that needs to be linked is linked, not only in the this-relates-to-that sense, but also in the click-here-and-I'll-bring-it-to-you-rightaway-Madam sense. Bliss.
Apart from my readers' group, Micro Readers United, mentioned on the Home page, my connection to the wider world of writing includes a subscription to the London Review of Books (that I don't read regularly enough) and membership of www.completelynovel.com. It's also time I start making a point of reading Numéro Cinq magazine.
I love languages. I love scripts. I love the fact that we can write. I think it is one of the most amazing cultural and philosophical achievements. I am very interested in how our ability to write affects our ability to think. I imagine we started out using writing simply to record facts, then to compose instructions, later to speculate on the nature of reality and finally to use words to deliberately evoke targeted feelings. How our thinking must've evolved to enable us to do those different things. And here I am, one of those people trying to push the boundaries of what written words can achieve. Of course I'm proud.