One of the great joys of being a writer is having the luxury to spend time playing with English. It is a magnificent language – rich, colourful, brimming with borrowed words from all over the linguistic world and infinitely versatile. It can also be exceptionally precise, although it does not have a word for my favourite German expression Griffbereit, a very useful compound noun that means ‘something that is within grabbing reach’, ie a handbag. But I digress. As a writer I have a wealth of words to choose from when describing scenes or people or weather – a favourite topic with me as anyone who knows my work will spot.
When a book appears in first draft it is often rough around the edges and in need of a lot of linguistic brushing up. My writer-friend, Diane Setterfield, author of the best-selling Thirteenth Tale, refers to the process of polishing the language in her books as ‘literising’. It isn’t a word but I know exactly what she means. I read each of my books at least twelve and usually sixteen times between the final draft and the final proof and a lot of literising goes on. This is usually over a period of six to eight months during the process of copy-editing and proof-reading. The copy editor’s job is to make sure that I, the author, have got my facts right, that the narrative makes sense and that I have not left glaring gaps which will confuse or frustrate the reader.
When the copy edited version comes back it has benefited from a fresh pair of eyes and I have had time away from it. During this phase I make some decisions about how much literising is required, whether descriptive pieces are going to add colour to the narrative. Yes, even writing non-fiction I believe you need to introduce scenery in order to give your history a believable backdrop. So with this most recent book, for example, I found myself writing a whole page of description about the magnificent Scottish Highlands west of Fort William where, during the war, young men and women were trained by the Special Operations Executive to be parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to carry out any number of sabotage missions. I had been to the area twelve months before and walked along the white sandy beaches of Morar and watched as a beaded curtain of rain drew across the bay. I needed to convey the immense majesty and power of this magnificent landscape and the effect it had on those who trained in it for the most dangerous jobs of their lives.
Later in the year I met Sir Richard Hyde-Parker and his sister, Lady Camoys, to talk about their family’s ancestral home Melford Hall in Suffolk, which had been burned down by the army in the war during a night of drunken revelry. Sir Richard talked with almost bated breath about his memories of that time. He spoke not of the fire but of sitting close to his parents in the cellar of their house opposite the Hall during air-raids. He spoke with such warmth for this long-lost memory that I found myself searching out the right words to convey this childlike sense of wonder expressed three quarters of a century later by an elderly man. It was a beautiful moment to capture and I spent many hours circling round that paragraph trying to pick the right balance of adjectives, structure and idioms. I hope I succeeded.
When the book has been copy-edited to everyone’s satisfaction it goes to the proof reader whose job it is to spot spelling and grammatical mistakes, repetition and general untidiness in the use of English. I love this process because the changes I make at this stage are small but extremely focussed. I am polishing the book, burnishing it as best I can, so that I can feel confident that the reader will hear my voice in the language. A rule of thumb an editor told me when I wrote my first book was this: ‘If you don’t love what you have written no one who is reading it will like it either.’ It is so true and I tell students this whenever I speak to them about writing. That is not narcissistic or vain but sound advice. Learn to love your words.
Very occasionally I have a disagreement over my use of language with the proof reader. In 2007 I wrote a history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, celebrating ninety years of their incredible work looking after cemeteries and memorials all over the world. I was staggered to learn that even on Gallipoli, where the peninsula is ravaged by wild winter storms, roses survive. So I wrote: ‘The English rose thrives in all but the harshest of climes.’ The proof reader changed it to: ‘English roses can survive in almost all climates.’ I was outraged. She had taken all the symbolism out of my phraseology. I had to argue my corner fiercely but what I was trying to convey was not that roses are robust but that the corner of England that is forever captured in those beautiful cemeteries is adorned with that most quintessential memory of youth, beauty, femininity: the English Rose. In the end I got my way.
In this most recent book I wanted to keep a paragraph that described the great ice storm of January 1940 ‘when birds froze on the wing and ponies in Wales were entombed in ice’. A proof reader’s pen hovered over that paragraph but I wasn’t having any of it. Nothing could be more desolate than the image of ponies frozen to death in the severe cold. It was so much more descriptive, I felt, than giving the facts and figures of the temperature, wind chill or size of snowdrifts. As I am writing this we are going through an intense cold snap in the UK but let me assure you that no birds are freezing in flight nor are ponies turning to ice.
I have now published over 750,000 words and most of them, for me at least, are in the right order. If you believe me that I read my books up to sixteen times before publication, then that means I have read over 10 million words of my own before I even begin to estimate how many of other people’s words I have read in the course of my research. You have to love this fabulous language of English, don’t you? It has given me a lifetime’s pleasure and I hope, when others read my work, it gives them just a little bit of pleasure too.
Our Uninvited Guests is published by Simon & Schuster on 8 March 2018