A writer’s notebook (or mine at least!) is a messy, scrappy thing that contains a strange mix of the practical and the magical. People often ask me about whether I write by hand, and how I keep track of ideas for my books. Enter the writer’s notebook. While I type most of my books, there are many passages and sentences in my books that come about from a scribbled, handwritten note which has been jotted down after a moment of inspiration while washing the dishes or going for a walk.
Here are some examples of my notebooks from The Paris Seamstress to show you what I mean.
Some of the notes I make in my notebook are simply to do with practical ideas for characters and scenes. For example, the note below:
This one is about logistics. In The Paris Seamstress, I needed to get Estella out of Paris and to New York in late May 1940 as the Germans advance on France so I needed to find out what ships were still crossing the seas at that time. I also needed to get her back to Paris in late 1941, and I had to work out a way for that to happen. Hence notes about Italian ships in 1940, which I didn’t use, and notes about Pan Am Flying Boats, which I did use.
Or this one:
On the way to New York, Estella meets a man called Sam on the ship. It could have been pure coincidence that she happened to bump into him and start a conversation but because he plays quite an important role in the book, I didn’t want to rely solely on coincidence. So this note is about why and how they happen to meet – that he notices the gold silk dress she’s wearing at the time. Because of his background, this makes sense and gives them a true reason to strike up a friendship. Thus from this note, a scene was born.
Sometimes, entire sentences come into my head. And, sometimes, those sentences make it into the book largely unchanged. I often think of this process as a kind of focussed meditation. If I start daydreaming about my book, then lines of dialogue and random sentences write themselves onto my mind and I then hurry to scribble them into the nearest notebook.
Here’s one example:
When I was in New York in 2016 researching the book, I drove out to the Hudson Valley as that’s where one of the characters, Alex, has his home. I looked through a couple of the famous old mansions in the area. In one of them near Sleepy Hollow, a row of cypress trees gave way onto the river. The effect of the trees facing the water, and the light, made the leaves look, to me, like beautifully ruffled fabric and the water like silk.
I didn’t want to forget the impression so I wrote myself the above note in the notebook I was carrying. This note was then transformed into the following sentence that actually appears in the book:
“The cypress trees, backdropped by the river, were like ballgowns, the intricate ruffled effect of the leaves like exquisite lace adorning the silk of the water.”
And another example:
As my handwriting is so atrocious, I’ll translate what this note actually says! It says: “she knew that, for him to have been so gentle with someone as broken as Lena made him a man worthy of more admiration than she’d ever spared him.”
This might seem like a fairly unimportant sentence but it’s quite crucial to Estella’s realisation about another character, Alex, in the book. That realisation leads to quite a major turn in the plot so I was pleased to have dreamed up this sentence, which helped me feel my way into the scene. In the final version, I’ve massaged it slightly so it reads:
“For Alex to have been as careful as he’d been with someone as broken as Lena made him worthy of a great deal more admiration than Estella had ever spared him.”
You can see how, as in the cypress leaves example above, much of what I capture in the notebook actually makes its way into the published book.
And one last example. The final paragraph of a book needs to be strong of course. I like for sentences like these to come to me in my daydreaming because often that’s where the best sentences come from. This happened with The Paris Seamstress, as below:
Once again, I’ll translate my shocking handwriting! This reads: “She feels the ghosts of those in the past, Evelyn Nesbitt, through to Alex and Lena, Estella, Sam cheering her on and embracing her, blessing her, and finally slipping back and loosening the bands of the past …”
This became, on the last page of the book:
“Fabienne felt the ghosts of all of those from the past – Evelyn Nesbitt, Lena, Sam, Alex, her grandmother Estella and Xander, her father – cheering her on, embracing her, blessing her, before finally stepping away and loosening their grip on the present.”
Once again, you can see that it’s close to the original one, but now – hopefully! – in the published version has more finesse and works harder to convey exactly what I want it to.
So, there you go! The power of the humble scribble in a writer’s notebook and how sometimes, the scribbles end up in the published version of a book.