Victoria Hislop: Finding the Right Notebook

Victoria Hislop: Finding the Right Notebook

I love a pristine, pocket notebook and over the years have bought all kinds – from serious, plain ones (like the famous Moleskine), to patterned ones, brightly coloured ones, soft leather ones and stylish ones from a museum shop. I particularly like those that have a special place to slide a pen (because there is nothing more annoying than having paper but nothing to write with). In spite of this passion for small notebooks, though, I never seemed to have one to hand at the right moment and when a ‘lightbulb’ moment happens, I am always rummaging frantically in bag or pocket. To no avail. Where most of these notebooks end up is as much a mystery to me as the fate of the thousand biros I have bought in my lifetime.

When I had sudden and unexpected inspiration for my first novel, The Island, I was on holiday in Crete. We had gone to the little former leprosy hospital-island of Spinalonga for an afternoon outing and afterwards I was desperate to make notes. All I had back in the holiday apartment, though, was the envelope that had contained a welcome note from the owner, giving instructions on how to work the hot water. But it was better than nothing, so I grabbed the envelope and scribbled on the back. It wasn’t ideal.

In the subsequent decade of notebook-carrying (having taken other writers’ advice to heart), I have never once had a notebook anywhere near when I have been struck with inspiration. All I ever seem to have to hand is a supermarket receipt or an old train ticket, both of them with limited space. Quite often these scraps of paper get covered in minuscule writing that, later on, I sometimes can’t even decipher myself. And when these scraps of paper get lost (which they often do), I tell myself that if the idea or fragment of an idea had been any good, then I would have remembered it in any case.

With Cartes Postales from Greece, I went about everything in a different way. Right from the beginning I knew that I wanted to create an illustrated book set in different locations around Greece, so I set out with a photographer and went on the road. The intention was to create a story as we travelled and during each section of the journey I did not wait for inspiration. I actively looked for it. For this reason, I knew that I would need a substantial notebook. It could not be a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ inspiration arrived. And I named the notebook my ‘Journey Journal’.

I chose one in bright blue (because bright colours are less easy to lose) with a ribbon to mark my place and a loop of elastic that wraps round it and stops the pages from getting crumpled. It’s large, (half A4 and much too big for any pocket).

By the time the travelling and research for Cartes Postales came to an end, every page of the notebook was filled. I had become very attached to this notebook and decided to include it in the story itself. I gave the fictional narrator of this novel, who is called Anthony, a blue notebook in which he records his thoughts, feelings, details of the places he visits and the stories that people tell him. The idea is that the reader of Cartes Postales holds the blue notebook in his or her hands as they read and photographs of the original appear at the beginning and end of the story. At the beginning, the reader sees the front cover when it is pristine and, by the end, they see an image of it as Anthony’s journey ends. It is in a very different condition, worn and stained with wine and coffee.

While travelling around Greece to research Cartes Postales, I was continually scribbling in the car (thankfully the photographer was happy to do all the driving) and very often a chapter was written as we were going from one place to another. An entire wallet-full of receipts would not have given me enough to write on.

I keep the blue notebook safe, as it’s the only one I have ever filled from beginning to end. My discovery was that the more I used it, the more ideas seemed to come.

Last week, I bought a new notebook and this time I think I have got it right. Once again, it’s a decent size and in easy-to-locate lime-green leather (I have promised myself to stop buying discreet handbag-sized notebooks that vanish into thin air). The pages of this new, bigger, brasher notebook demand to be filled and I have already begun.