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Notable reflections as I put pen to paper on a fresh new project

By Barbara Henderson

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Barbara Henderson with her 'new' notebook.
Barbara Henderson with her 'new' notebook.

Oh, I do love a gorgeous new notebook!

I was given the most beautiful notebook I have ever possessed for Christmas in 2018. However, despite much languishing on the pile of nondescript stuff on my desk, it has remained empty.

"Are you ever going to use that notebook I gave you?" the Man asks periodically.

"I will. When the right project comes along."

I get it. He sees me scribbling in other, inferior notebooks day after day. Each of my previous manuscripts has a book of notes devoted to research and plot experimentation. They are more like cherished scrapbooks, I guess. Other than that, to-do lists, contacts, article pitches, book research and online courses get muddled up with random phone numbers, doodles and shopping calculations on whichever bit of paper is nearest.

Like my desk, my mind (regrettably) isn’t logically organised and I have a lot of notebooks on the go. It feels wrong to use this particular one for something mundane. It needs a noble purpose. I have been waiting patiently and this week, its moment has come.

I have had The Idea.

Story ideas tend to ambush me when I least expect it. Scrolling through a new list of potential online courses (my daughter and I have completed the screenwriting one and have begun one on Shakespeare in Print and Performance), I was struck by an unusual title in the history section. What if there was a children’s book on this subject? What if, what if, and what if …

The ideas kept rolling. Two hours later and by then after midnight, I emailed my publisher and outlined my idea. By 7am the answer popped back into my inbox. Sounds fascinating. Have you thought about including this and exploring that?

My own ideas and theirs began to grow and interweave beautifully like a decorative Celtic knot that doesn’t quite know in which shape it will end up.

Once I am obsessed, things move fast. A routine phone call with my editor that morning gave me an opportunity to test further plot ideas and sound her out about the key ingredients of the story. The truth is that my kind of writing is, at its heart, very collaborative and I love being edited and for suggestions to be made.

I came off the phone and typed the key words and concepts into Google. A range of relevant online articles popped up, a few experts’ names, and a book which would answer many research questions and provide the daily social history an author needs to make their world believable. I ordered it immediately.

Lockdown has been tricky. With everyone home, I can’t give myself over to a story as wholly as I’d like to. I’m supposed to be working on a non-fiction project too, for which I have an actual deadline, and promotion for my new book out in the summer, The Siege of Caerlaverock, is under way. There is little time and many plates to spin. An hour of writing a day if I’m lucky, before something in the house needs done, or someone asks (not unreasonably) to speak to their mother.

But here was a new idea, and who am I to argue with the story sprite? As far as possible, I began to highlight, to copy and paste and to source images. The spark had lit the fire and all I need to do is fan it and keep it alive until I can devote proper time to it and let it roar. For the time being, all I can do is add daily research and imagination, the dual fuel my stories run on.

And the moment has come. This morning I put pen to paper – you guessed it – in my gorgeous new notebook.

Soon, his beautiful gift will be filled with words, images, doodles and mind-maps.

The question is: What are you going to do with the lovely notebook languishing in your desk drawer?

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