Are you a daydreamer too?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was young. I used to write stories and create imaginary worlds as a child, and co-wrote my first novel when I was about twelve years old (a Lord of the Rings rip off, complete with terrible illustrations). But I lost my way for a while and didn’t start writing again until my thirties.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
For The Crimson Ribbon I didn’t do much planning at all. I had characters, a beginning, and I knew where I wanted to end, but not how I was going to get there. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, as it took me ages. For my second book, I’ve had to plan more thoroughly, though I find that, despite my best intentions, things change as the characters develop and they begin to misbehave.
Not really. I made a lot of small discoveries that influenced the direction of the story. One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is taking the facts and then creating a story around them – filling in the gaps, if you will. It’s like solving a puzzle.
I prefer to write at home or somewhere quiet. I’m experimenting with public spaces at the moment – libraries mostly – but it has to be peaceful. I can’t work with distractions like music or TV. I prefer to be near a window with a view of trees and sky. I dream of having my own study. I write best first thing in the morning, and in the evening, but I’m hopeless in the afternoon.
I love rewriting and revising. For me the first draft is about finding out who the characters are and getting the shape of the story down. My first drafts are nearly always bad, but after that the fun begins. I love taking a scene and polishing it, finding exactly the right words or right image to make it work. And I love the moments when something just clicks – the perfect research fact turning up at the point you need it, or the times when a character comes alive and does something unexpected but somehow inevitable. My very favourite thing is when I’m completely inside a scene, seeing it, hearing the characters speak – utterly lost in the world I’ve created because it’s so real to me. Those are the moments that make writing a joy.
Sometimes I need to step away from a piece because it isn’t working, or I’ve tangled myself in knots. I take a walk, go for a swim, go dancing or call a good friend; anything to take myself outside of my own head. It’s been said many times, but the answers nearly always come eventually, if I just stop worrying about it.
Reading mostly, both fiction and non-fiction. Every time I read a history book I find more ideas. I watch a lot of costume drama too. I like to visit historical houses, castles, museums, art galleries etc. Time off is important. Thinking time even more so. I always remember, some years ago, hearing Rose Tremain talk about the importance of just sitting and staring out of the window. It’s important to remember that this can be essential work too.
Lots of tea.
This changes all the time but for today I’ll go for some of my favourite ladies: Sarah Dunant, Hilary Mantel, Jane Austen, Sarah Waters, Rose Tremain, Charlotte Brontë, Rosemary Sutcliff, Susan Cooper, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot.
Writing that transports the reader. Writing that is convincing and emotionally engaging in some way. Really good writing contains truth, or reveals something, and does it with beautiful, pleasurable, perfectly chosen words.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Write anything. Then rewrite. The craft and the magic are in the rewrite.
I’m working on my second novel – as yet untitled – which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. (You might know the 1945 film with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason that was loosely based on the same story). The legend tells of a noble-born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new.