“Some stories wait their turn to be told, others just tap you on the shoulder and insist you tell them.”
By one of those wonderful coincidences with which life is filled, I find that the first time the word alchemyst–with a Y–appears in my notes is in May 1997. Ten years later, almost to the day, The Alchemyst, the first book in the Nicholas Flamel series, will be published in May.
Every writer I know keeps a notebook full of those ideas, which might, one day, turn into a story. Most writers know they will probably never write the vast majority of those ideas. Most stories wait their turn to be told, but there are a few which tap you on the shoulder and insist on being told. These are the stories which simply will not go away until you get them down on paper, where you find yourself coming across precisely the research you need, or discovering the perfect character or, in my case, actually stumbling across Nicholas Flamel’s house in Paris.
Discovering Flamel’s house was the final piece I needed to put the book together. It also gave me the character of Nicholas Flamel because, up to that point, the book was without a hero.
And Nicholas Flamel brought so much to the story.
Nicholas Flamel was one of the most famous alchemists of his day. He was born in 1330 and earned his living as a bookseller, which, by another of those wonderful coincidences, was the same job I had for many years.
One day he bought a book, the same book mentioned in The Alchemyst: the Book of Abraham. It, too, really existed and Nicholas Flamel left us with a very detailed description of the copper-bound book. Although the book itself is lost, the illustrations from the text still exist.
Accompanied by his wife Perenelle, Nicholas spent more than 20 years trying to translate book. He must have succeeded. He became extraordinarily wealthy and used some of his great wealth to found hospitals, churches, and orphanages. Perhaps he had discovered the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone: how to turn base metal into gold.
Of course the greatest mystery linked to Nicholas Flamel is the story of what happened after he died. When his tomb was opened by thieves looking for some of his great wealth, it was found to be empty. Had Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel been buried in secret graves, or had they never died in the first place? In the months and years to follow, sightings of the Flamels were reported all over Europe. Had Nicholas also discovered that other great mystery of alchemy: the secret of immortality?
What writer couldn’t resist a story that combined magical books, an immortal magician and grave robbing and, even more excitingly, that had a basis in fact? It begged the questions: if he was still alive today, where would he be and what would he be doing? Obvious really–he would be running a bookshop in San Francisco.
The Alchemyst was a tough book to write, probably the toughest of all the books I’ve done so far. It is the first in a series, and because the story told across all six books is so tightly integrated, keeping track of the characters and events means that I have to keep extensive and detailed notes. A minor change in book one could impact dramatically book three. There are tiny clues seeded into the first book that pay off in later books. The time frame for the entire series is very tight–The Alchemyst, for example, takes place over two days–so I to need to keep an hour-by-hour breakdown of events.
For people who like to know the practicalities, I write every day and sometimes all day and often long into the night. Nights really are the best time for writing. It’s that time the conscious side of the brain is starting to shut down and the unconscious takes over. The following day I’ll read what I’ve written the previous day, then edit and rewrite. I work on two computer screens; the story on one screen, notes and research on the second screen.
And now let me answer the question you are about to ask me because, sooner or later, everyone asks, “What is the secret of writing?”
A comfortable chair. A really comfortable chair–because if you’re a writer, you’re going to spend a lot of time sitting in it.
How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters
by Andrew Shaffer, with contributions by Fin Shepard and April Wexler