As our little party left Ypres on the way back to Zeebrugge, I took out my notebook and started scribbling furiously, half-afraid that – like a dream – the revelation would fade before I had chance to get it down. Two wars, two sets of lovers – the stories linked by family, fate, photographs and letters. And some curious coincidences…
That WW1 diary had been a great inspiration to me. Other than that, I’d often thought of writing something about life at sea, but lacked a suitable story-line. But the Gulf war between Iran and Iraq – as it impacted upon international shipping – could run parallel with WW1.
I scribbled away, outlining a tale in which a descendent of the Elliotts – Zoe Clifford – has been trying to discover what happened to two brothers photographed together in Albert, France, in 1916. From her home in London she travels to York to meet a distant relative – and is introduced to Stephen Elliott, the sea-captain, with whom she falls in love. The somewhat fraught long-distance relationship between Zoe and Stephen could provide romantic tension – intensified by Stephen’s ship being sent to the Gulf. I could draw on personal experience there – and it could also draw attention to different aspects of war in the present-day: aspects unknown to most people.
Most important of all, the strategy was a perfect way to surmount the problem of my WW1 hero’s death. The story would carry the reader forward into the present while giving every opportunity to explore the idea that death is not the end, that time has no meaning, and love continues.
Events which had seemed so remarkable while writing my first novel, had moved into another gear. I couldn’t wait to share the news. Phoning my agent in London, I was still excited, words falling over themselves as I explained the thrill of that inspirational moment in Ypres.
Subsequently, I spent a couple of days at the typewriter. It could have been a hard task, since I’d never written a proposal before. My synopsis for the first book had been put together once it was finished – when I knew what it was about, and could describe it concisely. But with everything so clear in my head – beginning through to end – all I had to do now was outline the major points.
Stephen Elliott and Zoe Clifford were the vital elements in the present day – they were the ones who made the link with the past. Furthermore, I wanted this book to stand on its own merits, so that people could read and enjoy it for its own sake, without feeling they had to read the first one. Or indeed had entered the Elliott saga halfway through. Since this was the story I’d always intended to write, that was important to me. But as I explained to all interested parties, this book could not have been envisaged without all the coincidences attached to the family history.
Whichever way I looked at it, it was a circle. I’d wanted to write about Will, the writer of that WW1 diary, but circumstances had thrown me into an investigation of his background. Which in turn led me to write about Louisa, Robert and Edward. If I hadn’t done that, my life – not to mention the forthcoming novel – would have been so much the poorer.