It’s late February and my wife and I are on a cruise to the Eastern end of Papua New Guinea. It’s a very welcome break and although the cruise itinerary is not glamorous, there are whole days at sea in which I have time to write and think about the next story that has been percolating away for months.
The weather as we leave Brisbane is awful. We encounter the tail end of Cyclone Marcia but by late afternoon, the scudding showers are breaking and there are stars in the night sky as we walk the promenade deck after dinner. At the entrance to the open sea after the enclosed stretch of Moreton Bay, we head north. The next day is glorious: bright sunshine and light winds. I’ve decided that I never feel as alive and alert as I do at sea. It’s not just physical, either. Walking the deck, I feel connected to sailors over centuries. Captain Cook came this way; so did Matthew Flinders and wool clippers and steamboats in the John Burke and Burns Philps fleets on their way to New Guinea. And so did the American and Japanese fleets who met at the Battle of the Coral Sea. The spirits of all these people linger on the waters like the Communion of Saints we honour every time we say the Creed.
Enforced idleness is a mixed blessing of course: while our beautiful ship, the Sea Princess, slips elegantly through the blue waters of the Coral Sea, many of the passengers are working on their tans, competing in the bingo or doing more damage to their waistlines at the buffet. Me? I spend hours standing up at the counter of the champagne bar with my lap top open. It’s early: the bar doesn’t open until noon. I have the place to myself and my story slowly emerges.
I am back in the Sherlock Holmes genre and my story takes up in 1917 after the Russian Revolution. Katie and Emily are back at their day jobs, as it were, but are forced back into adventures to assist a refugee Russian princess who is carrying a fortune in Romanov gemstones in her corset. She has also had in her possession great national secrets – a full list of agents in place working for the Imperial Japanese government. This great secret – together with the bulk of the Romanov jewels- have been entrusted to her maid who has escaped to Shanghai. Katie and Emily take the princess out to find the maid and recover the treasure. Shadowy Russian thugs threaten; a turncoat Russian secret police chief [in my story he carries the name Colonel Putin] turns up dead in the Thames; and over the whole sordid business is the sinister figure of Professor Moriaty. Sherlock Holmes quarrels with his brother Mycroft. Police officers assigned to protect the girls and the princess are corrupt. Yes: I’m trying to make a real story out of this large dose of clichés.
It comes slowly at first. I seem to take much too long to reorient the action: I can’t assume that the reader comes fresh from the last page of A Time of Shadows to this story. Writing about 2500 words a day takes the action forward fairly fast, however, and when the cruise finishes, I have 20 000 words completed. It’s about one third done!
The problem is that I have no Internet on board and I miss Google at every turn. What is the nearest parish church to the girls’ home in Curzon Street, London? What ships carried passengers to Shanghai during World War 1? [I have to send them off on the Empress of India, knowing full well that that’s a ship that usually made the Atlantic crossing to Canada –not the Far East!] Did the famous Shanghai dance halls where gentlemen paid “ten cents a dance” with the ladies on offer operate as early as 1917? All of these tantalising questions [and many more] have to go on hold until the editing process can begin at home with the wifi.
But the joy of writing is there and my capacity to call life out of the aether is still an unalloyed pleasure. I love it. I have grown so close to some of my creations through the stories particularly the boys and girls from the East End school where Katie works. Wally and Arthur have featured in earlier stories; this time, their little sister, Maisie, has the chance to shine. Yes, I know that this is naïve writing but I want my stories to be filled with hope. No matter how bleak things get for the girls, I want their natural optimism and courage to shine through.