Research and development

NERTCHINSK. IT SOUNDED LIKE AN INT- eresting name, so Clio Gray wrote it down and looked it up. She was reading a book about the 19th-century tea trade with China, and there it was. Nertchinsk: a town near one of the trading places on the overland route. In Tsarist Russia, everyone would have heard about its lead mine prison. Into the notebooks it went.

There was a lot in there already. Lake Baikal. The names of the different winds that lightly ruffle or tear across its surface. Nineteenth-century Russian plans for Jewish population resettlements. How a crucifix supposedly carved by Nicodemus ended up in Lucca. Why England's Henry III was so devoted to a phial of Holy Blood his contemporaries thought was probably bogus. All things that had caught her eye over the years, all things she had filed away, cross-indexed on her computer and on back-up paper files.

Almost all her life, Gray has squirrelled away information like that. When she was eight and growing up in Devon, she remembers seeing a newspaper story about a pony jumping a hedge and landing on top of a Mini being driven by a woman along the country lanes. It made her laugh. Into the cuttings file it went.

There's a vast amount of information in them now, half a branch library full. She makes notes on every book she reads (on average, four a week), then files and indexes the notes. This might seem obsessive-compulsive, but it's a key part of her writing. And it's starting to pay off. Those jottings about Nertchinsk's lead mine prison and Lake Baikal's winds end up in a story that yesterday beat 1,500 others to win The Scotsman & Orange Short Story Award, Britain's biggest open-entry short story competition. And those notes about Nicodemus's crucifix and Henry III's devotion are crucial to the plot of her first novel, the historical adventure Guardians of the Key, which is just out from Headline.

Gray lives in a book-lined council house in Ballintore, near Tain, where she works as a part-time librarian. She has worked in a variety of different libraries in England and Scotland, and clearly loves her job - so much so that she carries it over into her own life. "Everyone laughs at me, and tells me I'm obsessive, but it's just that I'm a born librarian. It's my ideal job. Maybe it's just a fear of forgetting everything. I read all these things and want to remember them."

A born librarian knows how books lead into books in a never-ending labyrinthine whorl, so all those files are necessary ways of wresting order from chaos. "I've got files for literature, science, nature, and expeditions. There's a whole file for images too - I'm one of those awful people who buy old National Geographics and go through them all and cut out the bits I like, stick them on pieces of paper and enter them all on a big index and ..." She breaks off, catching my incredulity, and starts talking about the file she's got for names.

That, she says, is where she got Whilbert Stroop from. He's the main protagonist of Guardians of the Key, a finder of missing persons and yes, compulsive list-maker in early 19th-century London who finds himself unravelling a centuries-old mystery with religious overtones. The plot is just as bloody as The Da Vinci Code, but opens fewer theological chasms. It is, however, much better written than Dan Brown's bestseller; and Whilbert Stroop has far less cardboard about him than Brown's protagonist, Robert Langdon.

"Quite often," says Gray, "I'll be reading something and I'll come across a name I know I'll be able to use later on. That's how it was with Whilbert Stroop. I could see him immediately. I don't like describing characters too much because often readers prefer to build up their own pictures of them, but to me he's tall, thin, intellectual and other-worldly."

While all that filed-away research provides a gallimaufry of ideas for details on which whole plots can twist, a writer needs far more than that. Indeed, it's possible to argue that too much research can actually harm a novel, crowding out the imagination needed to bring those very facts to life.

More reading

Read Clio Gray's award-winning story I Should Have Listened Harder.

Gray admits that something like that happened with earlier novels she'd written and consigned to the bottom drawer. The first two were detective novels set in the present, and she was happy to see the back of them. Writing about the past had more appeal, and she felt a lot happier with her third one, a historical adventure about an orphan who runs away to join a freak show in mid-19th century Germany. Even then, though, she knew it still wasn't right.

What transformed her as a writer was a project run last year by Scottish Booktrust offering mentoring for relatively new writers from ones who had already had some success. When Jan Rutherford, who organised the project, decided to place Gray under the wing of Alan Bissett, who teaches on the Glasgow MLit creative writing course and whose own novels have a sparkily interiorised urban realism, she knew she was running a bit of a risk. Here, after all, was a mentor who was half the age of the protge and from a wildly different part of the country. Bissett's an extrovert from Falkirk; Gray is a country-lover who would prefer to be more isolated rather than less. He also writes in a completely different style, in the fast-paced, seat-of-the-pants present rather than the heavily researched past. The pairing could have been a disaster.

It wasn't. "Clio is that rarest of finds, a natural writer," says Rutherford. "Right from the start, we knew we had found a writer with a clear idea of where she wanted to go, who had already found her own 'voice', but needed guidance with structure and plot development." Over nine months, ending in March, Bissett offered just her that. He knew Gray's work would need thinning out - when he counted all her novel's characters, he got to more than 100 - and made less verbose. But he never doubted her talent. "Clio has incredible flair for atmosphere, imagery, setting and description. There is a strangeness and originality about her work - halfway between historical fiction and magic realism - that absorbed me throughout the mentoring process."

For Gray, the process meant stripping down her work, narrowing its focus. She didn't mind, because she could see that Bissett wasn't trying to make her write the way he would, and that the structural shifts he demanded in her plot actually made sense. "It works now," says Gray. "I think it might actually be quite a good book." And because she's an inherently modest person, you believe her all the more.

She only started writing relatively recently, encouraged to do so when the first ever story she'd ever written for a competition was picked out for publication in the final year of the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday awards in 2002. Since then, she's won through in other competitions, including one set up by Headline, her current publishers, for the first chapter of a novel set in London. She won with a story about a man who commits suicide in a church in Bexleyheath in 1805 - and winning meant writing a novel which explained what had driven him to do it. The answer takes us back to Renaissance Italy and a quest to find the blood of Christ that stretches across the centuries and across the continent.

Meanwhile, the note-taking and filing is proceeding apace: right now the files are about 16th-century printing, Spanish paintings and islands off Latvia. You'll be able to read the resulting book, again featuring Whilbert Stroop, this time next year.

All that note-taking, the hours spent writing up her files in the evening, has paid off. But you've only got to read her prize-winning short story, which we publish on page 20, to realise that there's always a lot more to her work than that.

"Eventually," she says, "when one thing leads onto another, you have to sit down and make something of it. Those notes turned out to be incredibly useful. Thank goodness I did it. Somehow, I must have known. Really, it's just about planting your acorns, isn't it?"

• Guardians of the Key, by Clio Gray, is published by Headline, priced 19.99.

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