Not sleeping. That’s the first sign. I know then it’s time to start the book. The words are wanting to come out. Yet words are like the British weather. Unpredictable. Elusive. Sunshine one moment, rain-clouds the next. You never know what’s coming. That’s the joy of writing for me, but also the agony.
I write historical novels. That means vast amounts of research. Research involves reading books all day for months on end, making hundreds of pages of notes and telling people it’s work – when really it’s bliss. I could do it forever.
But then the insomnia starts and I can’t kid myself any longer. I write a skeleton outline of the plot but barely stick to it. For me it’s important to fall in love with my characters, even the ‘bad’ ones, to know what they had for breakfast or what joke they last laughed at. I need that intimacy. I hate it when a character rebuffs all my advances and won’t open up. I take offence and blame them rather than myself.
My book, The Russian Concubine (Sphere), was inspired by my mother’s childhood as a fleeing White Russian after the communist revolution in 1917. I wrote it with no deadline at a leisurely pace, enjoying finding the right words in my own time. It took me a year plus 9 months research. But now contract deadlines loom, imposing stresses that sometimes freeze my pen. Then when I least expect it, some pressure mechanism kicks in and it races ahead, adrenaline pumping. That feels good.
I do much of my best writing in bed. Not that I’m bone-idle, but all the stuff that has been churning in my head overnight can transfer to the page without being deflected by dishwashers and catfood. I leave all that domestic detail till the afternoon. I start around 7.30am and work intensively for an hour or more until the words are flowing on to the page, then I resume in my study. That’s where danger lies. So many distractions. Discipline is the name of the game – not that writing for a living could ever be called a game!
I write by hand on to unlined A4 paper. It’s an important part of the creative process for me to use pen and paper. The words have to flow like life-blood on to the page. I type up and edit in the evenings – an activity I loathe. I’m just investing in some dictation software to make the keyboard work redundant, but already I recognise this could be a mistake. Maybe it will cause unexpected upheavals. Make the words even more unpredictable. Like global warming and British weather.