It’s one of the questions I hear most often when I speak at bookstores, schools, and festivals: Where did you get the idea for your novel. It’s complicated, because there is no one idea that makes a novel. A novel is built from hundreds or even thousands of ideas, and they don’t all come from the same place. But let me try to field that question as it pertains to my upcoming novel, First Impressions. I can at least tell you about the genesis and some of my process.
When I first wrote my novel The Bookman’s Tale (Viking 2013), I titled it Marginalia, referring not just to the markings in the margin of the book the hero discovers, but also to the fact that, at the beginning of the story, Peter Byerly is living in the margins of life. This would have been a good title if the only customers for the book were rare book librarians and literary scholars, but my agent wisely suggested a change. He actually sold the book as The First Folio. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this title and we ultimately changed it to The Bookman’s Tale, but the idea of The First Folio stuck with me. If one book was titled The First Folio might my next book be titled The Second . . . something. Maybe The Second Edition. That’s when I started thinking about the idea of a book that was worthless in its first edition but, for some reason, priceless in its second edition. Once I threw in Jane Austen, the idea for First Impressions was born.
I talked to my agent about the idea very early on and he encouraged me to do two things: not write a sequel to The Bookman’s Tale and have a female protagonist. Those two ideas were what really solidified First Impressions in my mind. I spent several months making notes and when my wife and I were in England in the summer of 2012 I visited Steventon, where Jane Austen had grown up and where part of my novel would be set. I drew huge inspiration from this quiet Hampshire village.
Shortly after Christmas I started writing in earnest and by mid March I had finished a first draft. I did a major rewrite for my agent, who had great ideas about how to strengthen both the story and the characters, after The Bookman’s Tale tour. In August I heard the wonderful news that my editor at Penguin USA, Kathryn Court, loved the book and had bought it. After another big re-write based on notes from Kathryn and the assistant editor Lindsey Schwoeri, First Impressions was ready to start making its own first impression.
So, my ideas came from the English countryside, from my agent and editors, and also from a love of rare books, Jane Austen, English literature, and a lot more.