How do you react when you’ve been writing all day and Child Two presents you with The Golden Egg, single-origin 60% cocoa, from chocolatiers Cocoa & Co?
Rear Window: A Room With A View
From the rear window I can see the world outside changing. I’ve been laid up for the last five weeks with a plate holding my fibula together and my broken ankle pinned. It’s the last time I’ll be litter-picking on the coastal footpath for a while. Since that interesting episode in early March, winter has drifted into spring. In a normal year I would flow with it, planting and sowing according to the week and the weather, but my recent accident has taken me down another road.
So, here I am, watching the tips of branches swell into tiny leaves of vivid green and glowing burgundy. Early prunus blossom has given way to blackthorn egg-white froth, and soon the ballerina-pink, double-flowered ornamental cherries will steal the show. Beyond the garden, I can see the Dorset hills greening under the persistent sun where, not long ago, brown-ribbed earth sported dots of white seagulls.
Snow, rain or milk-mist, the ever-changing landscape is a reminder of life’s fragile persistence. For me, writing without reference to the natural world would be to ignore the foundation of our existence. Whether now or a thousand years ago, the patterns of the seasons are tracked by our senses. Without conscious thought, tendrils of nature wind their way onto the page to anchor fiction in reality. Where would I rather be if being there meant not pausing to look, absorb, breathe? Here I am, trapped by circumstance, but free to see.
Illuminated by the roving sun or silhouetted by the moon, the scene encapsulated by my window never ceases to capture my imagination and my heart.
How Practice and Experience Improved One Author’s Craft.
Can practice and experience improve an author’s craft?As I write this I am about a quarter of the way through the first draft of my latest book. It is the eighth I’ve written and the third in The Tarnished Crown quartet. If numbers add up to anything you might expect the process to become easier with time, but does it? In my case the answer is yes. And no. I’ll deal with the yes first.
Since embarking on my first novel, Mortal Fire, in 2009, I’ve encountered many slings and arrows along the way; but I’ve also seen positive changes in the way I approch my writing. As an aide–mémoire for those moments of doubt, I’ve come up with an (admittedly) incomplete list of the benefits garnered from years of writing:
- Understanding how novels work in my genres of historical fiction and romantic mystery-suspense takes much of the gueswork out of plot and structure. This has come with experience and being open to learning and refining aspects of the craft.
- I’ve developed my own written language style. I didn’t know what it was before I began my first novel, but I do now. That’s a plus. Writing increases confidence in your own unique voice – the one that identifies your work as, well, yours.
- I know what to expect of my writing journey. Since producing my first book in the euphoria of ignorance, I now realise that size really does matter. A 350,000 word book is not going to appeal to a publisher no matter how well it is written. My books are still long, but they are now within the range of what is acceptable for historical novels.
- I have an idea of how long it will take me to produce the next volume. I reckon on the first draft taking a year – give or take a few months for moving house, Christmas and other such eventualities.
- I’ve worked out what daily routine works best for me and plan my schedules accordingly. Emails get answered in the morning, then it’s gardening, cooking, or household maintenance (DIY, restoration, cleaning) all before early-afternoon. From then onwards I write until at least 7pm and woe betide any interruptions or interruptors.
- Over the last decade I’ve concluded that editing is preferable to writing the first draft. I like to have the backbone of the story done before fleshing it out and adding the details that provide richness and depth. The first draft can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride, an adrenaline rush before relaxing into the second draft.
- The subsequent books in a series tend to be easier to write because the fictional world and its inhabitants have been established already.
- It has been a real eye-opener working with publishers and seeing the world from their perspective. They are the ones producing and selling your books, so it helps the relationship if you have an insider’s view on what sells, how books are marketed and how you can help the process.
- Marketing and self-promotion – ah, yes, two things writers are urged to embrace with all the enthusiasm of a convert. I have yet to conquer social media and I confess I’d rather be writing than Tweeting, but I am working on improving my understanding of such things. I have already learned a tremendous amount, made many good friends, and sold books to readers across the globe who enjoy my work. That can’t be bad.
So much for experience helping with aspects of writing a new book and all that goes with it, but what continues to be tricky?
The actual slog of writing is much the same whether it is your first, tenth or last book. It requires mental effort, discipline and, not to put too fine a point on it, bum-glue. Yes, without dedicated time at your desktop or with your quill, that book will not get written. Accept it and buy a decent chair that supports your back.
The snakes and ladders of writing are just the same whichever book you write. You start off on an anticipatory sprint, slow down to a jog, before mooching about in the mire in the middle. Pulling yourself out is tough, but once over that hump and peering at the finishing line, you’re almost there. N.B. Write that down and remember it for the next book you write. There will always be ups and downs – plough on.
For many writers, including me, self-doubt is the elephant in the room. Learning to open the door and invite it to step outside is the one thing you can do for yourself. Recognise the doubts, analyse them for what they are, and then give them the boot.
Looking back, I’m struck not by how much easier writing each book has become – and it has – but the confidence that has grown out of tackling each new project. In a note to myself, I must remember that and, before embarking on the next novel with all those snakes and elephants, repeat the words made famous by Chief Dan George in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales:
When in doubt I must ‘endeavour to persevere’.
Of Compost & Writing
Between writing one chapter and the next I usually do something completely unrelated. At this time of year and on dry days it will be a gardening task. Over the last few months I’ve been tidying winter’s detritus from around the kitchen garden, scooping up leaves and worms and putting them in a safe heap to get on with making lovely, friable compost.
Meanwhile, I’ll be plotting the planting of the vegetables while planting the plots for the next chapter. Both require gentle handling and time to compost, although the outcomes are completely different.
Following Breadcrumbs: Tracing Historical People
Sir Hugh Hastings, de jure 10th baron Hastings, (c1447 – 7th June, 1488) is one of those tantalising figures that populates C15th English history. We have scant information about the man and I have been unable to trace an image of him. The little we do have leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to notable people and events. We know he was knighted and acted as Sheriff of Yorkshire (1479 – 1480), and that he was also steward of Tickhill castle, near Doncaster, Yorkshire. This is where he enters my orbit of interest.
Proof Is In The Reading: proofreading the new novel
I’ve spent the last few weeks holed up and proofreading. This is the last stage of preparing a novel for publication. It went through structural and copy edits and then to a professional proofreader and to me. This is my last opportunity to spot errors and make minor amendments. There are always some no matter how thoroughly I’ve editied it before. Sure enough I spotted an inadvertent name blip, winced at the number of times I used ‘winced’, and noted armorial colours that mysteriously changed. That’s what proofreading is all about and I am thankful for the absolute professionalism of the team handling the production of my book.
Proofs for Wheel of Fortune are back with the editor. It’s now time for a thorough purge of my study before resuming editing the second book, Degrees of Affinity. How does so much detritus build up when I’m not looking?
To be fair this mountain was largely the result of boxes being deposited in my room. Accumulated over thirty years, this ‘stuff’ had to be sifted and sorted, trashed and filed one box at a time.
I’ve completed that task. Now I have a lifetime of books to go through, organise and get onto the shelves. First off are the numerous books on a variety of historical topics associated with research for The Tarnished Crown trilogy. Next come those collected in childhood – well-thumbed and with annotations and observations scrawled in a childish hand. The history books from university are another load. The comments have matured, become somewhat pithy at times, and reflect a more searching mind. The stacks that have accumlated since are well-read but pristine. Notes are now made on slips of paper and secured within the pages. Many have been gifts from my family, always on the hunt for presents for Christmas and birthday. It is a time for reflection as I come across old favourites, and a time of preperation before I continue with the second book.