by Ian R Macleod
For me, it generally seems that the genesis of a story arrives from several places and sources over a period of time, even if there are often moments when things suddenly appear to come together. With “The Mrs. Innocents” [in our May/June issue, on sale now], I could say with some superficial confidence that the moment when I felt I’d grasped a worthwhile idea for a story came when I stumbled across the wonderfully named Mrs. Innocent, who was Queen Victoria’s personal midwife, but was also witness to the badly botched delivery of the child borne by her daughter Vicky in Berlin, who grew up to be Kaiser Wilhelm. Combine that with the people who oversaw the delivery all being men, and that the resulting oxygen deprivation and withered arm affected young Prince Wilhelm’s health and upbringing, and that his difficult personality was pivotal in the deathly dance which led to World War One, and I sniffed a linkage between what is and what might have been that felt intriguing.
Writing this out as I just have confirms a clear trail of evidence; it feels rather like those red threads detectives weave from pin to pin across walls linking the culprit with the crime scene and the various bits of evidence and circumstance in between. But, again, and rather like those threads (and, indeed, cases as they are generally presented in court) this is a plausible version that can be used to reflect what happened in a believable way rather than the actual truth of what really occurred. When it comes to crimes rather than insights into a writing a story, we all know that most of them are committed not as the result of a cunning web cleverly woven by some master criminal, but more likely some half-thought-through impulse. It’s also often said that juries find this “well, it just kinda happened” explanation of crimes deeply unpersuasive, reared as we all are on a diet of complex fictional whodunnits which offer up neatly tied conclusions and clever twists. The same could be broadly said of fiction, at least when every schoolkid is required to “explain” exactly what William Shakespeare or Mark Twain had in mind when they wrote about a particular thing in a particular way, and every writer of fiction is expected to be able to “talk through” the process that ended up with a particular piece of fiction.
Even if you exclude writers, essayists and lawyers, we are all inveterate spinners of explanatory tales. It’s how we frame our lives and the things we see around us, from the tale of how we first encountered our loved ones to the way we deal with and react to world events. It’s also how we process memories, not to mention story ideas, although, as much clinical research shows, the supposed facts we end up telling ourselves often have at best a loose relationship with the hard actual business of unforgiving reality. The falsity of exact memory, and the way our brains are always striving to string things together irrespective of any real linkage, combined with what we now know about the largely subconscious processes by we actually make even trivial decisions, all tell us that the sudden moments of insight we think we had, we probably didn’t.
Even if you exclude writers, essayists and lawyers, we are all inveterate spinners of explanatory tales. It’s how we frame our lives and the things we see around us, from the tale of how we first encountered our loved ones to the way we deal with and react to world events.
So when I write about the genesis of my story “The Mrs. Innocents” being in the discovery of the name and circumstances of Queen Victoria’s midwife, there’s some element of truth to it, but also an element of wishful thinking, and probably downright fabrication. I certainly have a long-standing interest in nineteenth and twentieth century history, but intimate biographies of royals such as Queen Victoria really aren’t my thing, so I must have already been researching to some degree when I first came across Mrs. Innocent. What exactly triggered that research, I’m not sure, although it could have been knowing about Kaiser Wilhelm’s withered arm and wondering about the effect it might have had on world history. Then, I’d also long nurtured the idea of writing a story from the viewpoint of a pregnant woman. And I’m fascinated by, if not very knowledgeable about, the work of Nikola Tesla. I could even claim that I’d been thinking of writing about the Tesla Tower, his most bizarre and ambitious invention, but in truth I’m not sure, although I do reckon it was somewhere in the background. Oh, and I went to Berlin a few years back, which is surely another genesis of my story.
Like every other decision we make and every impulse we act on, the origins of a story lie in a mishmash of largely subconscious processes, random accidents and occasional moments of vague insight, along with a considerable number of dead ends, which, like some lazy boss, the conscious “I” then strings together and chooses to take the entire credit for in retrospect. Which I’m more than fine with. After all, it’s so much better to describe myself as a wise, clever and ever-creative storyteller stringing all the elements together into a complex web than to admit the truth. Which is, at the end of the day, “well, it just kinda happened.”