What’s your Punctum?


Strong novels have strong starting points

Henry James describes the origin of a story as having a ‘…needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.’ Many writers can testify to this ‘punctum’, perhaps a point of curiosity, or a powerful event – anything that triggers the desire to write your way on from a starting point that fascinates.

For me this punctum occurred on Wednesday 24th February 2010. I was in the kitchen, performing some desultory domestic task and listening idly to the Radio 4 news, when an item stopped me in my tracks. The then prime minister, Gordon Brown, was apologising to a group of ex child migrants to Australia on behalf of a British government that had allowed them to be sent there decades before. The children had been told their parents were dead when many were in fact still alive. My first thought was what a shocking account. My second was what a powerful story it would make.

I had been searching for a while for a subject on which to base a novel, and this event excited both my pity and my imagination. My novel, The Oceans Between Us,  (which will be published by Headline next March) came out of my response to Gordon Brown’s announcement.

For most writers there is a catalyst to narrative. John Milton, the blind puritan poet wrote his epic Paradise Lost because he wanted to ‘justify the ways of God to man.’  Ian McEwan claimed to have written his novel Enduing Love because he wanted to find out how a rational man behaves when something irrational happens to him.  Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie came about because she wanted to write about what it feels to be old. All of these writers have a curiosity, a mission, or a speculation that spurred them to write and allowed them to sustain that momentum for many thousands of words.

We all need punctums – or is it puncta? – something that stirs the blood, excites the imagination and is powerful enough to sustain us for hundreds of hours in front of a keyboard. If the starting point is strong, it’s likely the writing will be too. So let’s all start looking for needles!