Briefly tell us about your book.
The Dictionary of Lost Words weaves the life of a fictional character, Esme, through the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. The story follows her from childhood into adulthood and the reader is right beside her as she navigates the meaning of words, the women’s suffrage movement, love, loss and WWI.
What inspired the idea behind this book?
I had read and enjoyed Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, a book about the relationship between the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and one of the volunteers who supplied examples of how words had been used in literature. I became fascinated by the process of compiling the Dictionary, but when I’d finished reading, there were niggling questions I could find no answers for. For example, if everyone involved in defining the words were men, then how well did that first edition of the OED represent the way women used words? If all the words in the OED had to have a textual source (which they did), then what words might have been lost because they were never written down – words spoken by the illiterate, the poor or women doing women’s work. I read a bit more and looked things up on line, but I couldn’t find answers to these questions. What I did find, though, was a curious little story about a lost word.
The word bondmaid was discovered missing from the first volume of words in 1901. It should have been between bondly and bondman, but it wasn’t. The word means slave girl, and no one knows how it went missing. It is a mystery ripe for solving, I thought, and that is when the seed of an idea for a story began to grow.
What was the research process like for the book?
The problem with having an idea for a story that is based on real events and real people and is set on the other side of the world, is the research. There are plenty of excellent books to consult about the history of the OED, and no shortage of information about its most beloved editor, James Murray, but the story I wanted to tell was not part of the historical record. I could not find it on line or order it through Book Depository. I had to go to Oxford if I wanted to tell it well. So, I did; once at the very start of the writing, and then at the end, when I had a draft and knew what information I needed to make the story authentic and ‘true’.
On both occasions I stayed in a student room at one of the Oxford University colleges, first Magdalen and then Brasenose. They are among the oldest colleges in England and they put me in the right frame of mind for the research. Each day I would walk the streets of Oxford, imagining where Esme might go and what she would see. I was welcomed into the archives at the Oxford University Press and given access to original slips containing words and quotations, to the proof pages of dictionary volumes, to photographs, and letters between people I was writing about. It was an incredibly intimate process, and I feel I got to know the words and the people in a way that was impossible reading an academic history. I came to understand that the words, like the people, have back stories and personalities. I hope I have captured something of that in my novel.
Do you write about people you know? Or yourself?
My first book, One Italian Summer, was a memoir. I wrote about my family’s journey to Italy in search of the good life so, of course, I was writing about people I know. But it isn’t really that straight forward – in writing about real people (including myself) I uncovered things I didn’t previously ‘know’. In a way it was the imaginative leap of writing and putting yourself in the shoes of others, that gave me a deeper understanding of who we were.
In The Dictionary of Lost words, I have imagined people who do not exist. None of the fictional characters are based on anyone in particular, but some of the relationships are ‘true’. The relationship between Esme and her Da is similar to the relationship I have had with my Dad. I didn’t realise I was writing about us until others pointed it out. It was so obvious to the outsider, and I love that I didn’t do it consciously. I might have ruined it with self-consciousness if I had.
What’s some great advice you’ve received that has helped you as a writer?
I love working with mentors when I’m writing a book. Carol LeFevre mentored me when I wrote One Italian Summer, and she taught me how to ‘turn a sentence’. It’s about rearranging ordinary sentences so the words can do their job. Weighty words are better placed just before the full stop or the comma – they are a cliff from which to dive into the next sentence.
When I was writing The Dictionary of Lost Words, Toni Jordan mentored me for a while. I have a habit of dropping into the middle of a scene, which can sometimes be effective, but can also be overdone. The way she explained it to me made me understand the importance of scene setting: I want you to lead me up the path to the front door so I can anticipate what the house within might look like, what it might feel like, who inhabits it. Often it is no more than a few words, but a bit of scene setting can reduce the experience of disorientation in a reader.
What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?
I had no recognisable writing routine when I wrote my last book, but for The Dictionary of Lost words I settled on a routine early and it has served me well. Essentially, I knew I had to overcome my tendency to procrastinate, so I did two things. First, I set a word limit of just one word a day (you read that right). It is not the writing I avoid, it is the sitting down and opening my laptop. Once that one word is written, I always write more. I have never failed to reach my quota (not many writers can say that). Second, I have conditioned myself to associate writing with the pleasure of coffee at my favourite café. It took less than a week of going to the café with only my laptop and now I can’t wait to write – in fact, I’m addicted to it! Needless to say, I have written this whole book in a café. Covid-19 disrupted my writing routine for about a week, then I realised I could park my car outside the café and write for hours. I call, and a familiar face brings coffee to my window. I’ve already started writing my next novel. It taps into stories I found during my research for ‘Dictionary’, but this time it will focus on the bindery girls – women and girls binding books at the Oxford University Press.