Erica James: How Writing My Twentieth Novel – Song of the Skylark – Differed From Writing My First Novel

Erica James: How Writing My Twentieth Novel – Song of the Skylark – Differed From Writing My First Novel

But to start at the beginning, my very first novel – A Breath of Fresh Air – was published in 1996 and went on to become a Sunday Times bestseller. I think it would be fair to say that I owe a lot of that success, not just to my wonderful publishers, Orion, but to WH Smith who selected the book for their Fresh Talent Promotion. It was a promotion that gave debut authors a fantastic platform from which to spring.

At the time A Breath of Fresh Air and a number of my novels that came afterwards were categorised as Aga Sagas – the name given to an extremely popular genre more or less invented by Joanna Trollope. But trends come and go and it’s never a good idea to sit on one’s creative laurels, no matter how comfortable. I may not have actually articulated that thought in my head, but my instinct pushed me in slightly new directions and while I’ve never thought my novels to be issue-driven, there’s no mistaking that over the years I have covered a broad range of subjects tackling dyslexia, MS, deafness, religion, anorexia, the Boxing Day tsunami, the death of a child, and divorce. I like to think that the stories I tell reflect ordinary people who, by virtue of coping with the myriad ups and downs of life, live extraordinary lives.

Latterly I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to writing stories partially set in the past. Italy in the 1950s featured in Summer at the Lake and The Dandelion Years and now Song of the Skylark combine a contemporary storyline with one set in wartime Britain. When my agent read the manuscript for Song of the Skylark he made the observation that I couldn’t have written a book of that depth when I first started out as a writer, that I wouldn’t have had the skill or vision. He didn’t mean this in a negative way, but as positive affirmation that I’ve grown as an author.

So where did the idea for Song of the Skylark come from? Good question! Ideas just pop into my head and quite randomly, and frequently without me being aware of how or why. Of course, one way or another, there must be a trigger.

The elderly Mrs Dallimore is a key character in Song of the Skylark and facing the end of her life she’s living out her last days in a care home. I very much wanted to make her passing more of a celebration of her long life, and for it to be an inspiration.

My first twinkling of Clarissa Dallimore as a real person came to me when I pictured her in the dining room of a care home poignantly remembering a time when she was sitting in a lavish dining room on board one of the most elegant ocean liners ever built. Ironically that scene never actually reached the final draft of the manuscript, but it was the image that set the tone of her character and her story that followed.

I took my inspiration for Clarissa’s four days spent on board the SS Etoile crossing the Atlantic to England (a ship that never actually existed, other than inside my head) from the Normandie, a French owned ship that was considered to be the most beautiful and fastest of that era, entering service in 1935.

But those four days crossing the Atlantic in such luxurious style is just the beginning of Clarissa Dallimore’s story. A story which I hope my readers, many of whom have been with me since my first novel, will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing.