How to find inspiration for a new novel

My working title for The Poet’s Wife was something entirely different, a title that I see now had to change for various reasons. Originally, it was ‘In the shade of the orange tree’ and I still think of my first novel in terms of two titles: the one that evolved alongside the creation of my story and the other, almost ‘grown-up’, fully formed name.

I’m not yet sure what my second novel’s title will be as this has yet to be discussed. But, as my first book, the working title will always feel important and significant to me with a single overriding image encapsulating it. Here it is: Iris and the Sunbird.

So who is Iris and why is there a sunbird in my title? Today I’d like to give you a very tiny peek into my second novel which will be published in 2016. Many people have asked if I have written a sequel to The Poet’s Wife or set my next book in Spain. But it’s ‘no’ to both. I have lived in Kenya since 2013 (we moved here with my family for my husband’s work) and so it made sense to set my novel here, particularly as this country, its landscapes and people have slowly crept beneath my skin as the months have passed. But haven’t there been hundreds of fictional novels already set in Kenya?, people have asked me. Well, yes. But there have also been hundreds of fictional accounts of the Spanish civil war. And nobody else has written my book, my story in my voice. So as far as I’m concerned this is not a reason to not write something.

As any writer will attest to their craft, I’ve come to know my characters well. I admire Iris greatly. She has great capacity for learning and for love, yet she is a woman of her generation (born in the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign), raised by a kind but weak provincial father and critical, frustrated social-climber mother. At the age of eighteen, Iris finds herself married off to a man she does not know in a far flung colonial outpost, Nairobi, in British East Africa. There was virtually nothing in Nairobi in those days, one colonist in 1902 describing it as a rat-infested, swampy cesspit, devoid of trees, utterly uninhabitable. Imagine it: a young girl thousands of miles from home in a dusty land plagued by biting ants, torrential downpours and the prowling calls of wild animals. But Iris must survive somehow and whilst her distant, disapproving husband is at work she begins exploring her environment.The friendships she develops will have unexpected, devastating consequences.

And the sunbird? When I was writing this novel, I would sit at a table by the window in my home in a Nairobi suburb and watch as small birds flitted around from branch to tree, sometimes alighting on the windowsill as I sat in enraptured silence watching them. There was one in particular I wanted to know the name of with its sheen of irridescent feathers and black, curved beak. It wasn’t hard to find out. It was a sunbird, the very music of its name matching its beauty. Rewind to 1903, and Iris is fascinated by all the birds of this strange land she finds herself in. Time and again, she sees the tiny sunbird feeding from the nectar of a plant outside her bungalow and longs to identify it. It is Iris’s search that propels her on a journey she can never return from, bringing her into contact with people who will utterly transform her life. It results in a relationship with one man in particular, the sunbird rooting itself in his identity as he becomes the symbolic winged creature, epitomising the beauty and transience of life itself.


Picture of sunbirds, courtesy of Nani Croze from Kitengela Glass, from her stunning book ‘Common Birds’

The Poet’s Wife was my first novel and one that I am enormously proud of. It took such a long time to write (and publish!) and Iris and the Sunbird feels very different in its scope. Yet these characters too have come to inhabit my mind. I can hear Iris’s voice; see the way she smiles; what she wears and the way she bravely strides out across the barren, rain, sun and windswept terrain of early Nairobi in search of friendship and understanding.

Here are a few photos I have taken in Kenya since being here that go a very small way to showing the unparalleled light,diversity and beauty of this land that Iris comes to love, as have I.


I don’t know what this is called (can anybody help me?) but it is vast in proportion and soft to the touch, a delicate web of crimson surrounding a golden heart


The sun descending and casting its early evening light across the Olorgesailie Plains


Will these noble creatures of the African plains, who use their memories to survive, be around for my grandchildren to see in the wild?


This is where it all started, the idea for Iris and the Sunbird, at Nairobi Railway Station. Known as the “Lunatic Line”, it stretched from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, took several years to construct and cost many hundreds of lives. 


Low tide in Malindi washes up secrets from the sea


This is where our vegetables come from, the fertile terraced fields of Mlango Farm in Limuru 


This isn’t an oversized wild guinea pig, it’s a rock hyrax which, believe it or not, is the elephant’s closest living relative


A Kenyan sunset

But seriously? You don’t need to live in Kenya to get inspired. Stories are everywhere, all around us: in a few words of a conversation you overhear standing in the post office queue; in a warm wind that unexpectedly ripples over you on a winter’s day; in a scrap of fabric that brings up an old, forgotten memory. Get out there, don’t put it off any longer and get writing.

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