The other day, something I was reading tossed a tasty short-story idea into my lap: two people in a particular situation with dramatic possibilities. If you think of craft as a process of problem-finding, as Richard Sennet puts it, then the problem I had found was how those possibilities might be realised. And I worked out how quite quickly - how the problem could be solved - how it could be written. I knew what the voice would be, how the structure would work, and that it would end up as a decent short story that quite a few readers would enjoy. At which point, all desire to write it melted away. I knew the answer to the problem that the idea presented, and felt no urge to glue the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair for several days, in order to spell it out word by word.
Obviously, in one sense, I was wrong: that spelling-out is also, in itself, a process of finding problems, and then solving them: "How do I write this sentence?" is really a question of "What am I trying to do with this sentence?", and once you answer that, the how is answered too, within the limits of your current capabilities at choosing and arranging words. And, of course, I was wrong in the sense that one can always do it better, or worse, in terms of the effect on readers or the money in the contract.
But I wasn't wrong, creatively speaking, to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a decent story. These days, some of the time, I know my writerly self: I had not only found the problem, I had solved it, and it was that very certainty that meant there was nothing to fire up and fuel my creative engines. Imagine a scientist who gets fascinated by a phenomenon, and spends a year or ten observing and imagining and analysing it, to work out how it works. The human, physical-mental joy of creative thinking is at full-tilt; that's why she came into this business. Once she has a theory that is proved to express and explain how that phenomenon operates, the job is done and there's no more of that joy to be had from it. The scientist moves on to something else: either a new phenomenon, or a new puzzle posed by this one. And mountaineers, too, can't find the fire and energy to put themselves through all the sweat and agony to do the same climb again. Saying, "But there's one tricky bit where the path's washed away," isn't enough to sustain the desire to climb the whole route and reach a top you've already climbed and reached: they look for a new route, or a new mountain. Why should writers be different?
And would I have been wrong in commercial terms to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a saleable story? Perhaps: I have rent to pay. If I'd had to try - if it had been a commission, say - I would have taken a leaf from Rachel Aaron's book, and gone on trying to find a problem, inside that story-idea, that I did feel an urgent, passionate desire to solve.
Maybe I would have been wrong to refuse to write it on spec, too, if it was a story which might get me lots of readers or money or both. But perhaps not. A deliberately found, not naturally-arising, problem is not such rich or efficient fuel. Things not working out is always a possibility a creative artist has to live with, of course: human creativity is nothing if not wasteful. But with something that doesn't arise naturally I know from experience that I often make the wrong judgements about the project: I stick where I should twist, and cut where I should add. It might not, in other words, have turned out as successful as it looked as if it would.
So, as ever, I'm not saying that I - or you - should ever refuse a project because it will do well as art or commerce, or refuse a project it because it won't. There's no merit in the snobbery that assumes that anything written for money is whoredom, nor in the snobbery that assumes that refusing to write something saleable makes you an idle dilettante. Snobbery is sterile, and this is a decision about fertility: about the fundamental mental-physical joy of creative thinking, and its relationship, in each of us, to our own particular, writerly self.
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I don't know about you, but I can't imagine writing a novel which was trying to set forward a thesis, or prove a point. Indeed, when I told a literary journalist that one of the themes of The Mathematics of Love turned out to be lost children and she asked me what it says about lost children, I floundered: I hadn't had an argument or a thesis, just an emotional centre for the novel.
But the novel I've just finished is the first which has come from an idea. I knew from the first moment that it was going to be about betrayal. So I went what Ishiguro calls "location hunting": I sought out a time and a place, and then people, which would embody all the things I wanted to... I nearly said "say", about betrayal, but that sounds too tidy and conclusive. "Explore"? "Evoke"? "Embody", perhaps, because that's what we do, as novelists, isn't it: we tell stories and poke ideas around by means of particular, fictional human bodies. These bodies are enmeshed as we all are in nets of allegiance and trust, and now they're threatened.
The novel I haven't started writing is the first thing I've ever written which takes the least account of a review of my work; in The Times Sarah Vine said, of The Mathematics of Love, "Everyone is, at the core, vulnerable, their happiness bittersweet and fleeting but nevertheless priceless." And when I happened to remember that (it's the sort of review you do remember) the wisps of story and characters floating around in my mind suddenly made sense, and the novel got its word; this is a story about happiness.
So then I started thinking about whether there was a one-word description for their predecessors. I knew from early on that The Mathematics of Love was about voyeurism, and later lost children. But if you'd asked me what A Secret Alchemy was about I would have said "Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville, and a modern historian." It was my agent who said, "It's about marriage, isn't it?" and she was utterly right, and the title came from that knowledge.
So could you give your novel a - I hesitate to call it a theme - a one-word tag? It's a bit terse for the inevitable interviewer's question, "What's your book about?" but at least it'll stop you rabbitting on for paragraphs: the interviewer wants two sentences, max. Like an elevator pitch, the idea of reducing your book to a single word is at once horrifying, because it seems so reductive, and immensely useful. Not because it's easier to sell: one word can't be High Concept in the way the movie industry wants. It's useful because, your one word having emerged or been found, it stays in your ear as you write. Pieces of plot become coherent and significant, instead of being a means of pushing your characters around. Small scenes, minor characters become part of the whole when your one word colours what they say and do. There's a reason to choose one name, or refer to (not quote - too expensive) one song lyric, rather than another. It's a way of channelling some of the millions decisions you must make into a more coherent stream than they'd otherwise be. It's not reductive, any more than it's reductive to find the first right colour for a room in a precious ornament or beloved rug: it's round that which you'll build the rest of the colour scheme. Even though only some people will look at it and say, 'That's a wonderful colour!", just about everyone will (you hope) find the room more welcoming/appealing/ordered/attractive/exciting, because of it.
As night follows day, a new novel has entered the works, just as the final draft of the novel I think of as my Betrayal novel, has left them, going from my desk to my agent's and onwards. Not that it's new in the obvious sense; it first appeared, untimely, almost exactly two years ago. Since then I've been... not exactly ignoring it, but making no effort to do more with it than I couldn't avoid. I've bought the occasional book that caught my eye, clipped articles out of the TLS, gone to exhibitions that were relevant, collected postcards and leaflets, made a note of something I heard on the radio... but I've never allowed myself to sit down and Think.
And then a week ago, I did. In among lots of other, duller work, I was able to allow myself some treats: hours I could spend on this delicious stage of creating a novel. I collected up all the clippings; trawled my notebooks for the scraps and even pages headed "Happiness novel" (and found various nice things along the way); dug in the pocket at the back for the bus-tickets on which I'd scrawled things; found the one written with an inkless biro, my thought showing only as indentations. And then I pulled the cellophane off a big, squashy-covered Moleskine and found a magazine file, and sorted everything out. A few days later I began to try to germinate a few of these seeds. And later again I did a bit of what others might call planning, but I call thinking-aloud-on-paper, and from that made a working notebook to refer to, because free-thinking, like free-writing, and shaping the result into something useful, is a two-stage process; the time and paper spent turning the former into the latter is time well spent.
And now that I've done some brooding over characters and ideas, made spider diagrams of how characters relate to each other (in the emotional as well as familial sense) and imagined outwards to things which might happen, I realise that it's no longer a matter of deciding to work on the novel; like a new baby, it's taken up permanent residence in my life. It's such an exciting stage, this business of watching the clouds of unknowing massing, that it's hard to put off the moment of starting to condense them by writing Chapter One. But, having spent two years not starting it, I'm beginning to think that I should add to the four things which you need to have, if you want to become a writer. As well as persistence, hard work, talent and luck, I think you need patience.
Perhaps patience is part of craftsmanship. You need to put up with the fact that at the moment your ducks are wonky, you need to not launch into the new novel before it's ready, you need to not send your half-baked novel to agents just because you're longing get your singing heard, and you need to not throw in the towel at the first rejection, or even the twentieth. It's not that no publisher ever needed to be nagged for an answer, heaven knows. And it's not that history isn't full of novels written in six white hot weeks of inspiration - some pieces of writing come righter, quicker, than others - although it's rather less full of novels bought on the strength of an unfinished draft.
And certainly some kinds of patience come with confidence, or rather trust, and I write as someone who is extremely impatient in every other part of life. This will be the ninth novel I've written, so although I don't have a story yet, let alone a working plot, I have absolute trust that it will come, and come when it's good and ready. And I'm in the position - at the moment - to trust that when it's written, at least one agent and two editors will read it. But if you can't choose to feel patient, you can choose not to act on your impatience to do the next thing, to reach a goal, whatever you need to prove to yourself, or whatever The Ropeseller says about the market. It's not that you abandon the goal - although letting go of the outcome can have all sorts of good results - it's that you don't rush upon it. You don't let your desire to acquire the product overwhelm your respect for your process. If a thing's worth writing, after all, it's worth waiting for.
In Jerusha Cowless's most recent missive from the South Seas, she came close to telling a writer what to do. (Clearly Jerusha is not me: I try never to tell anyone what to do, only to unpick the possiblities as clearly as I can. Honest.) Jerusha hinted that a poetry course might be the best way to go beyond the edges of that writer's own commercial-mum-lit-writing nature.
And, having read Jerusha's answer, I'm working on a theory that the thing to do when you need/want a break or have got stuck with your writing, is the absolute opposite of what it was that you have been - and probably feel you "should be" - doing. Commercial novelists should do a poetry course. Poets should write Talking Heads type stories with a full plot voiced by all sorts of different characters. Womag story writers, who have to find fresh humour and drama within some of the tighest parameters in the writing trade, should start free-writing and see what happens. Literary short fiction writers wedded to the magnifying-glass perfection of their form should do NaNoWriMo and start unreeling their literary cloth with what used to be called gay abandon, before that phrase came to mean something equally delightful, but rather different. Poets who love traditional forms should refuse to rhyme or scan, lovers of free verse should tackle a sonnet, literary blockbuster novelists should try writing a Mills & Boon pocket novel where they only have 20,000 words in which everything must be clear, passionate, and tie up neatly at the end. And so on.
There are lots of excellent reasons for trying this:
What I'm getting at is that sometimes what's important isn't the goal/product, but the doing/process. It can be incredibly hard to persuade yourself to do writing which is a "waste of time". If the only way you can feel okay about doing something as "self-indulgent" as writing is to direct it at writing a piece which is hoping to get on a bookshop shelf or the poetry stage, then it can be very hard to change to the kind of work which doesn't have an obvious goal or even payoff. If what you really want to be is a poet - and you may well be right that a poet is what you are - and you'll never write a decent story, then is there any point in trying? If the only reason you have for the time/money/neglect-of-family which is involved in taking a poetry course, say, is that it may or may not make you a better or happier writer of novels, can you do that if you're not sure you'll ever get another novel published? Even if partner-and-children say they're cool about the apparent pointlessness of the poetry course, it can still be hard to silence your Inner Protestant, who says it's selfish and, most lethal of all, "self-indulgent".
But I do think this is somewhere where society's goal-orientedness and anti-"self-indulgent" psyche can really screw things up for a creative person. I've just worked out that, in order to send my agent a 140,000 word novel, I've written/re-written nearly half a million words. It's wasteful, yes, but it's wasteful in the way that it's "wasteful" to make sure nursing rotas build in enough time to talk to the patients: the good outcomes are not predictable in either scale or nature, but they are, absolutely and proveably, real. And, goodness me, it's not as if nature isn't wasteful. Whether you're counting sperm, or stars, there are a great deal more than the minimum necessary for life, love and beauty. And it's the same with writing.
Okay, so in a loose, anecdotal, bloggy sort of way we've tackled how unpicking what you're doing in terms of grammar and syntax might help you to say what you're trying to say better, and also the different effects of past and present tense, and the value of learning to handle long sentences. Today's thinking aloud is about how a minute query about punctuation opens up an exploration of what you're trying to say. Here's a sentence from my work in progress:
And yet even the most self-hating Papist wife or joylessly Puritan husband knows that it is not so: that the nature of a man and a woman's coupling depends utterly on the nature of that man and that woman, each with his uncertainties, vanities, pride justified and pride false.
The simple question is: should there also be a possessive apostrophe on the first "man"?
Technically, as they're separate nouns, each of them should have their own possessive 's: the nature of a man's and a woman's coupling depends... because the coupling is 'of' each of them, even though "coupling" is singular.
Most people, including me (I know because I've tried it out in the WriteWords forum), feel that it's more euphonious as I originally had it, without the first 's: ...the nature of a man and a woman's coupling depends... We hear "a-man-and-a-woman" as a unit, jointly rather than singly possessing the singular noun. Similarly, someone on the forum pointed out, you would naturally say "We found a man's and a woman's fingerprints", but "We went to Tom and Anna's house."
One solution, when the correct way seems wrong and the right way is incorrect, is to re-phrase. But that brings its own problems: that the nature of the coupling of a man and a woman... is a bit awkward. So we were just agreeing that probably my original instincts had been right, when someone suggested cutting the second "a", to make them even more of a single unit: that the nature of a man and woman's coupling... Which on the grounds of sound-balance as well as logic means that you should also cut the second "that": depends utterly on the nature of that man and woman... So I tried to remember why I had given them each their own "a" and "that". I know I wrote both, cut one, restored it, but I don't remember thinking about it, just listening to the voice in my head saying "this way - that way? - no, this way". So why this way?
First, the subject: the point of the sentence is that each coupling is different because the two are wholly separate. They're not really a unit, in other words, especially by the end: with that man and that woman, each with his uncertainties... (I hate using "his" for "each", but "their" sounds modern, even though you can find it at the date.)
Second: sound (or music, as this excellent post by Sally Zigmond puts it): "a man and a woman" has slant rhymes echoing around in it, and it also has a rhythm which is just strong enough to catch the ear a little, rather as "seeking and finding" does here, in that post on grammar. Catching the ear - provided it's a sing not a squawk - brings words alive for the reader.
Third: period voice. In ordinary talk, most of us would say, "I saw a man and woman having sex". But this isn't ordinary talk, it's a first-person narrator in 1714. One thing I noticed in researching the voice for The Mathematics of Love is how 18th century prose is always full of balances and antitheses, from Defoe via Fielding to Austen, and truest of all of the foundation of so much writing, the Book of Common Prayer. One of the skills (tricks?) of historical fiction is to evoke a sense of otherness - that this is not Now, but Then - while not actually making the book harder work than your kind of reader expects, and this kind of thing, as well as the slightly non-contemporary phrasing, does just that.
Fourth: character-in-action, which of course embodies the preceding three reasons. This narrator's take on humankind is one of rueful amusement, and she is ... well, if I told you you won't buy the book, but just now she's in a state of tristesse, shall we say: thoughts ranging free, a little magniloquently, definitely not workaday or energetic.
And "pride justified and pride false" embodies all these techniques: 1) an antithesis, 2) music 3) period flavour in both language and syntax and 4) even-handed to suit the character. So it isn't an accident that it's the concluding phrase of the sentence.
I know what she means: for a complex set of practical, storytelling reasons, I'm about to pick up three scenes in the WIP, which take place in the same private house on two different days, jam them all together in a single morning with a chorus of different minor characters, and set them in a building site. And it is about the function of the scene in the story, so it shouldn't matter where it's set or what happens in superficial terms of action, as long as both make this turn of the plot-engine believable (which was Leila's original problem). And yet because setting and action, in the broad sense of "computer-hacking-in-Afghanistan" or "women-winning-in-Silicon-Valley", are two of the primary ways in which we experience a novel, to change the setting or action of a scene can mean that it feels as if the novel has changed.
do people go back to their draft and change the plot of specific scenes while keeping the function of the scene. I think the difference between the function and the plot of a scene is an important one.... it reminds me of the story about the hammer: a man has a hammer; it's the same hammer that belonged to his great-great-great grandfather. In those years, the head of the hammer has been changed many times, and so has the handle, as they wear out. Is it still the same hammer? Is my story still the same story, even though scenes have been replaced?
I wonder if it's rooted in the fact that as readers we tend to think, "Oh, they're having a row about how strong the coffee should be, and by the end the word 'divorce' has been said for the first time," and only after a moment (or at a second read if it's very elliptically done), "Oh, they're really having a row because the marriage is falling apart under the strain of fertility treatment." Equally, as writers our imaginations often work in the concrete terms of a specific settings and immediate actions. Another WriteWorder, womag writer Geraldine Ryan has a beautiful example of that: for ages she had a story working out in her head, and all she knew was that it was about french onion soup. It was weeks before she could say, "I know what it's about: Alzheimer's." So it's only after a while, and perhaps only because for some other reason that setting/action isn't feasible, that we must start to think, "Okay, what's this scene really doing, and how else could I do it?" So you change the handle: the coffee row between husband and wife becomes a row between wife and father about the cost of her fertility treatment, but the head can still hammer the divorce-beginning-to-loom plot-nail in just as well.
And then perhaps the other-way-round thing happens: you can't get the row-with-the-father scene right. You just can't find one line of dialogue after another which will lead where you're trying to go. And you realise that this scene is flat because father and daughter wouldn't have a row and so your creative unconscious won't serve up the words for it. Then you think "Why wouldn't they have a row?", and realise that it's because he's insecure about how much she loves him, so wouldn't let her pick a fight. So it becomes a father-consoling-daughter scene, and it's the word "marriage-guidance" which comes up now for the first time. The hammer-head has changed in its turn. Is it still the same story?
I don't know, though I do know that it's almost certainly a better story. There's value in forgetting, but perhaps books-as-babies is the clue. My son is on his gap year, and about to go to university. Much of what he is now I couldn't possibly have predicted when he was three, from his face to his hoped-for career, and biologically speaking there's scarcely a cell of him which existed then. And yet there's a core of form and colouring, and of thought and feeling, which hasn't changed. He is still him, and so is your story.
Thursday is TLS day, and I'm always pleased to see it coming through the door. Not for the fiction reviews - I don't read fiction reviews, for reasons I explored in Making the Skeleton Dance - but for everything else. It is, if you like, my liberal education in all the areas of all the subjects which my actual education didn't have space to expand into. In a review of the British Museum's exhibition of Rennaissance Drawings, which I must see, James Hall quotes a famous essay, which I must read, Wimsatt and Beardsley's The Intentional Fallacy. The Renaissance was when the painter's private preparatory practice of drawing was evolving to create art objects valued in their own right. In their essay the authors, Hall says, "remind us that there is no necessary connection between a draft and the end product:
There is a sense in which an author, by revision, may better achieve his original intention. But in a very abstract sense. He intended to write a better work, or a better work of a certain kind, and now has done it. But it follows that a former concrete intention was not his intention. 'He's the man we were in search of, that's true,' says Hardy's rustic constable, 'and yet he's not the man we were in search of, for the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted'.
Despite the similarites in action and pose of Ghirlandaio's painted and drawn maidservants, the former is not the same as the latter, and each has been shaped according to a distinct 'concrete intention'... The term 'preparatory drawing' simply doesn't do justice to the novelty and autonomy of each phase of the picture-making process."
My experience of having a story recorded for radio clarified how there's no one 'right' version of any story. Hall points to that idea, but also in other directions. The one most of us know is when characters won't do what they're told: instincts about how humans tick show you that your original intention must change, in plot or character or both. But there are other things it suggests. Since I'm now (I hope) coming to an end with the new novel, I'm having twinges of panic about ideas, concepts, bits of research, which turn out not to have got in. Will it be lacking if I don't go back and darn them all in? Or should I trust the instinct that kept making me forget them? I've learnt to listen to things which happen - such as a story in present tense which keeps trying to write itself in past - and try to work out what they're telling me. On the other hand instinct can be wrong: if you only have one phone conversation with your sibling in Australia, and they sounded depressed, does that mean they're depressed all year? Similarly, novels are so darned long, any decision or change I come up with based on the work I've just been doing for a week on one chapter, may in fact be quite wrong for the reader who reads the whole novel in a day or two.
I like my story 'Nunc Dimittis', which I wrote as an exercise for what wasn't yet A Secret Alchemy, but which has taken on a life of its own. But what about the story I took for a walk in the park, and realised half-way round the duck-pond that its engine is novel-sized? There's a whole unwritten novel already between me and when I could write that novel, so meanwhile I'm going to slake my desires by writing the short story version. But what is the relationship between the two pieces? Will I want to get the story published just so that it's heard, or will I not want readers to be reading across between the two, just as I don't want them reading across between my fiction and the non-fiction I've drawn on? And will the novel-sized engine, used in the story, be putting a Harrier jump-jet engine into a Mini? Or will the story never have enough latent in it that I can develop a full novel from it. Will I be able to start fresh with the novel or want to cling to what was good about the story? Maybe I should re-name all the characters, but I know the names and they're the right ones. And will everyone, forever, read the short story as a preparatory drawing? I've just booked a ticket for the British Museum exhibition, so perhaps Leonardo, and Raphael and Michaelangelo and all the others, will be able to show me: show, rather than tell, of course.
Whenever an editor or agent is lured into listing the things which put them off a manuscript, it seems that well up the list is a novel which starts with someone waking up. And top of the list is the subset of these which start with the protagonist waking up with a hangover or a head wound. "But - but - but -" thousands of aspiring writers cry, and they have a point. What about The Metamorphosis, just for a start? Indeed, the unrevised version of my new novel began with someone being woken up, and if that narrator hadn't been axed in revisions it still would: the opening wasn't the problem.
As so often, when agents and editors start talking, they're talking about what they see - the many waking-up openings that don't work - and they blame the waking up for it, not the not-working. That doesn't mean it's not worth knowing these things about agently reactions; if you're doing something agents know from experience is usually done badly (prologues are another example) then your mss is starting off on the back foot, and you'd better make extra-sure that it works in every other way. But, fundamentally, when a waking-up opening fails it isn't because it's a scene involving a duvet and pillows (or a stained horseblanket and heap of straw), or that the next paragraph starts with drawing back curtains or hacking down the stable door. It's because of what follows the first sentence: a description of the world into which the protagonist has woken up. Description. It may be wonderful (or hangoverly disgusting) sensory detail; poetical or horrifying scene-setting; compelling character-description; intriguing memory (hazily wonderful or hazily horrible) or backstory; witty or heartbreaking reflection, but it's going to be a while before things begin to change, and change is the motor of fiction. It's not that the first sentence needs to be about the SAS abseiling through the window, though there are worse ways to start a novel. Gregor Samsa doesn't (as I remember, since my copy seems to have taking a walk from its proper place, between The Leopard and The Unbearable Lightness of Being) do anything except lie there on his back and look at his claws.
And there's the key. Lying on your back is suddenly quite a different thing if you've turned into a beetle: unstable literally, and unstable metaphorically. Absolutely built in to that very first sentence is the knowledge that something has to happen: first, he's got to get off his back. And then what? Whereas if your plans for the story don't include coleopterology (yes, I did have to look that one up), then you'd better make sure that the instability is built in other ways; my narrator didn't wake up, he was woken up, by someone with a very serious problem banging on his door, and my agent approved of it as an opening. If the only instability in your protagonist's situation is the alcohol in his stomach, even those of your readers who aren't vomit-phobic are likely to think at some level, 'So what?'
Of course, as I was discussing in Why Should I Bother?, if it's a writer you know and love, or the voice is incredibly seductive, or the texture of the writing irresistible, the reader may go with the flow for a while. And the experienced reader, or the reader who isn't on her seventieth slushpile manuscript that Friday afternoon, may be able and willing to pick up delicate clues to an instability that isn't, yet, being spelt out. But, what, on that very first page, tells the reader that something has to happen? We wonder how Gregor got like that, but much, much more urgent is the question of what, physically, now, he's going to do about it? Not what has happened, but what will happen?
But, if your novel or story opens like this, please don't beat yourself up. It's a very natural outcome of how you, the writer, have been thinking about the story. You've had to think your characters up to their starting point: their physical, mental, emotional and practical situation as the story kicks off. You've been dreaming them, and these not-working waking-up scenes are part of your dream: good first-draft stuff. Now it's you who need to wake up, and re-write.
It sounds a bit obvious, but I realised that knowing my radio story would be spoken aloud and heard, not written and read, did change things. I write in first person most of the time, because it's so much easier to find the right, particular, different voice and the plotting problems it leads to are usually surmountable. If I want more than one viewpoint I'll have more than one first-person narrator. But I'd been flirting with the idea of writing this story in third person with a shifting or even omniscient point of view, since it's a while since I did that, and because I'm rather more seriously flirting with the idea of doing it for the next novel. The reader, in such a story, would be the storyteller. But when I started to imagine an actual person saying words aloud, it clearly was saying 'I', so that was that.
I also knew, by the time I was talking to Cecilia the producer, that it would be an old man, remembering something in his youth. This double, past-and-present narrative, too, seems to be a form that I'm drawn to - all three narratives in A Secret Alchemy are built on versions of it - and I think it's for various reason. First, since I'm always writing about history even when the story doesn't have a historical setting, bringing time in as a process which is personal as well as historical, links the narrator and their story into the larger nature of life: we are narrative creatures because we exist in time. Second, since fiction is always about cause and effect - it's the basics of narrative drive - you're more aware of it if the story of the causes and how the effects came about are embodied in the ultimate effects: the 'now' of the narrator. 'How the Whale Became' is about before and after. And third, this past-and-present structure allows a version of what is otherwise the big advantage that third person has over first: free indirect style. With an old man, telling the story of his much younger self, you have two subtly different voices at your disposal, and can slide in and out of that younger voice just as Austen can slide in and out of Emma's...
But of course you have to find that voice - those voices. For reasons I won't go into, because if I didn't then kill you the BBC would kill me, I plucked David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Uncle Silas from the shelf. No, my story isn't a bildungsroman involving self-determining governesses and Swedenborgian villains, but I needed to stock my intuition with words, rhythms and mindsets of the times. However, since Tuesday to Friday were swamped with work on the novel, with domestic stuff wedged into the cracks, I ended up carrying them around under my arm so as to grab a few pages when I could, and hoping that voice can be transmitted transcutaneously, like nicotine or HRT. Inevitably I had to de-Dickens a few bits of the novel, though the wisps of Brontë were rather effective, whereas I doubt if you could spot a whisper of any of those books in the voice of my story. But as ever, research ends up not obviously providing what you were looking for, but infusing and inspiring something completely different: where my narrator came from suddenly sprang into life. And then the first line came into my head. I already had the ending, the central problem, 'Lost in the Lanes' , I had the length, and I had Google maps and StreetView, Wikipedia, and a little guide to the history of its streets at my elbow. And now I had the beginning and the voice.
I'm a great believer in craft, and I know from experience that it's perfectly possible, once you know what you're doing, to write successful stuff in cold blood. So I wish I could write you a blow-by-blow account of how I wrote the story: the choices, decisions, strategies, false-starts and cul-de-sacs, but I can't, because I don't know. At the risk of sounding smug, all I can say is that I sat down on the Sunday morning with a pen and a notebook, and two and a half hours later I had a story.