Crime and Historical Novelist
Writing the First Novel
Like many people, I decided to become a writer at an early age; and like many people I discovered that being a writer was much more agreeable than actually writing. Writing is hard work, and my early attempts at it were disappointing, even to myself.
One of the more rational reasons for my inertia was that I believed that before you started writing a novel you should have a plan. Somehow, every time I tried to construct one, the attempt lurched into a cul de sac around chapter five. This was a minor matter. One day I would have the perfect plan. Then I would write as well as be a writer.
This happy state of justified sloth was dispelled, one February lunchtime in 1980, when I realised that I had absent-mindedly pursued a completely different career from writing for the previous three-and-a-half years. Knowing all too well my own penchant for inertia, I also realised that unless I did something drastic I was unlikely to find time for the pursuit of literature until I was too old to do much about it or, worse still, dead.
Panic set in. There and then I snatched a green biro and scribbled what eventually became the first six pages of Caroline Minuscule. As far as I know, scholars have not investigated the role of panic in the creative process. But it is safe to say that my first novel would not have been written without it. Nor perhaps would most of the others.
My first discovery was that planning, though it has much to recommend it, is not an essential precondition of writing a novel - or even, in some cases, a desirable one. As I wrote, a mysterious momentum developed: one sentence led to the next; one paragraph suggested another; and over it all hovered the reassuring knowledge that, even in those distant days before word processors, I could always go back and change it afterwards.
All I had at the start of the novel, in my moment of panic, was the idea of my hero, William Dougal, finding his garotted tutor and failing to report the murder, together with the book's title and the academic background which went with it. The rest flooded out as the story progressed, often surprising me as much as my readers.
The choice of title was important for several reasons. I had spent much of the previous year studying medieval palaeography in general, and in particular the script Caroline Minuscule. The name was intriguing, and at the time I knew something about it (much more than I do now).
Second, a few months earlier I had laboriously typed out a 15,000-word dissertation in which I had contrived to misspell every single instance of the word "minuscule". It would be something of a triumph, I thought, if I could avoid spelling "minuscule" as "miniscule" throughout an entire novel. If nothing else, it would prove that I was capable of learning from my mistakes. Finally, and most importantly, while working on the dissertation, I had married a fellow student. My wife's name was, and I'm glad to say still is, Caroline.
I wrote at work, in the evenings and at weekends. I made a rule for myself that I would do at least a sentence every day. To my surprise, the story staggered to the end of the hand-written first draft. I typed the second draft, revising as I went. When I finished, I wondered where it had all come from. There are, as in every novel, elements of autobiography distorted in the fictional hall of mirrors. First novels often have more than most. I had been reading the Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series, and in a sense William Dougal is a modified Tom Ripley transposed into a British key. But I had also been reading the genteel criminal romps of Edmund Crispin. Perhaps they too left their mark.
I made a list of the British publishers with strong crime fiction lists. I sent the typescript first to Victor Gollancz, claiming in my letter that Caroline Minuscule was designed to be the first of a series. Livia Gollancz wrote back to say that in principle they were interested in publishing it, provided I agreed to remove 30,000 words, which at the time seemed a crime against humanity roughly on a par with Herod's Massacre of the Innocents. Now I think that editors often know what they are talking about.
Caroline Minuscule was published in July 1982. One of the first reviews was by H.R.F.Keating, then reviewing crime fiction regularly in The Times of London. It was an encouraging and very generous review, and it meant all the more because I admired Keating the novelist as well as Keating the reviewer. The Times Literary Supplement found the book "light, lively and entertaining" but disapproved of the "bizarreness of the plot" and "the complete amorality of all its characters". A little later, the New York Times Book Review noted "a rather shocking amorality", too. The reviewer for a Louisiana journal thought the book would have been improved if its editor had excised "the smutty passages"; I'm still trying to find them.
The book's early reviewers often attached the word "amoral" to it, and in particular to Dougal. (I doubt if they would do so now.) It would be more accurate to say that Dougal is morally flexible, as most of us are, to greater or lesser extent. That was one of the themes buzzing in the back of my mind as I was writing.
Books acquire a life of their own. Caroline Minuscule has refused to go gentle into that good night. Its readers, I am glad to say, keep it alive and kicking. This year, a French translation has been published, and those discriminating folk at Poisoned Pen have reissued the text of the original Gollancz edition.
After Caroline Minuscule, my real problems began. It was no longer possible to be a writer in the purely decorative sense. I had abandoned my alternative career and there were bills to be paid, not to mention savage editors to be placated.
Now there are eight William Dougal novels. Perhaps one day there will be a ninth. One thing's for sure: I doubt if I will do much preliminary plotting for it.
Introduction to Caroline Minuscule (Poisoned Pen reissue)
Andrew Taylor © 2002