In August 2008 I featured in the “My Writing Day” page on the inside back cover of the magazine. This was because Lesley Horton suggested it to Lynne Hackles of WM. Thanks Lesley – and if anyone hasn’t read Lesley’s books, do! They’re gutsy, sensitive and well-written, a modern take on the police procedural – Lesley’s research is painstaking but never intrusive – and are shot through with the fascinating human interplay between the various racial groups inside and outside the police and public. Lesley draws on her own experience to make a very believable world with a compelling mystery at the heart of a picture of modern Britain which is immediately recognizable and yet quirky in that way Life is – and, as in all good mysteries, nothing is ever quite what you expect.
Lynne Hackles is the lucky winner of £75,000 on Deal or No Deal, a ridiculously interesting programme, and never has money been more enjoyably spent. Lynne bought a camper van with the money and has roamed Britain ever since (you never know where the next email’s coming from). She’s written a book about the whole experience and it’s out soon.
Here’s my Writing Day piece.
I’m sure I was a dormouse in a former life as hibernation strikes me as a very sound idea. In summer I’m a sort of human lark but in winter the day starts far too early with a phone call from my husband, Peter, who calls me on his way to work. The telephone is the only sound I’ve ever discovered that can actually drill through the mists of sleep. A nuclear bomb, Peter remarked acidly, wouldn’t do the trick but the telephone works every time. I did once wake up when the back garden was full of firemen, but you can’t rely on someone torching the shed at seven o’clock every morning.
The first job is to wake up the kids (I’ve got five) and then make a pot of tea. Once connected with the vital fluid life starts in earnest. The next hour I spend as cook (breakfast and packed lunches) janitor (letting cats and dogs in and out) animal husbandry (feeding the aforementioned cats and dogs) cleaner (if one of the wretched creatures has been sick again) secretary (filling in slips for school) mediating in disputes which can range from who switched channels on the radio even though the Hoosiers were playing and I know you don’t like ham you’ve got the wrong sandwiches mixed in with having to dispense knowledge on anything from Plato’s Theory of Forms to what precisely is in Branston Pickle. Somewhere along the line I manage to wash and dress. I usually forget all about breakfast until about eleven o’clock when I can kid myself it’s really lunch and have a sausage muffin or something really smelly like rollmop herring.
That late breakfast or early lunch is the signal to get going. Like most aspiring authors I read shedloads of How To books and a common piece of advice was to start writing first thing when you’re fresh, fit and active. Real writers do mornings. Er… so when do Real Writers wash-up, shop, clean, sort out the dinner etc, etc? You see, unless those things are done, then I can’t settle. What’s more, while I’m doing them, I can think about what’s going on in the book. I write every day apart from weekends – write regularly is a good piece of advice from the How To books - and by half eleven or so I’m usually raring to go. On a perfect day, that’s it for the next three hours or so. Writing is actually fairly hard work and I go stale after that. If I’m revising a book I can carry on for much longer as I’ve done the donkey work of making the thing up and can concentrate on the language and the flow.
If I feel reluctant to start then there’s often a reason connected with the story. I’ve never actually lost the plot, but I have mislaid it from time to time. Reluctance to actually write is a signal to go back to my notebook and outline and see the story as a whole.
I’ve written for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager I was an avid science-fiction fan and, together with other fans, produced a string of TV tie-in fanzines which we printed on an old Gestetner machine and sold. That was a terrific learning curve. To get proper feedback on your writing is a wonderful experience and really helps you mature. When the children were little I didn’t have the time to write for a few years but I always felt I was a writer in waiting. I have nothing but admiration for people who produce a proper, workable book on their first attempt. It certainly can be done, I know, but it took me a long time to get from being an ex short story fan writer to producing a “real” book. One of the best moments I ever had was when Teresa Chris, a leading agent, rang me up full of enthusiasm for A Fête Worse Than Death, a phone call which resulting in her taking me on as a client. In fact the only thing that topped it was another phone call from Teresa to say
that Krystyna Green from Constable and Robinson wanted to buy it. Although it was anguish at the time, all the painful and long-winded business of learning to write properly is now paying dividends. It means I can go back to a manuscript and revise it when necessary without having kittens that it’s all going to go wrong. Although Mad About The Boy? was more or less all right, the revisions meant that in the end it was just about as good as I could make it.
I write directly on to the computer but plotting out the story is something I have to do with a pen and paper. It’s probably got something to do with which side of the brain is being used as plotting is analytical and critical rather than imaginative. There’s a mystique about inventing characters which I think can be very off-putting to new writers. The exciting thing is that a sort of magic does take hold but only, as far as I’m concerned, when a solid foundation has been laid. In Mad About The Boy? for instance, I needed two characters, Arthur and Lyvenden, to be careless otherwise I wouldn’t have a story. Thinking about how carelessness manifests itself gave me a lot of information about the two men and helped to make them credible characters.
My writing day ends when the kids come home from school. Some superior beings – Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance – could write surrounded by his loving offspring. I tell myself it’s because he was a man and go and cook the dinner.
I write in what we rather grandly call The Study which is a titchy back-bedroom with a gurgling gas-heater which whumps into life when anyone turns a hot tap on. Beside my desk is a 1943 postcard of a wartime factory with one woman saying to another, “I’m not here all day – I have to go and do part-time housework.” The study is crammed with books which I have to cull regularly, otherwise they’d take over. Outside is the back garden and a street of terraced houses. As the window’s at tree-level you get a great birds-eye view of… well, birds, actually. Magpies are great fun and so are blackbirds. Being incurable nosy, I love watching people in the street, and, beyond the houses, stretch the Pennines. On a sunny day the light on the bricks and on the moors is fascinating. I love it.
What did I want for my birthday?
Well, I’ve got loads of jumpers and plenty of bath salts, so the obvious thing was a flight in a Tiger Moth… If anyone fancies having the cobwebs well and truly shaken out of them, I can recommend a flight in an open-cockpit aeroplane.
In 1935 my Dad won a flight with the legendary Alan Cobham in a Tiger Moth. He looped the loop on that occasion. I’m glad to say Mark, the pilot, kept us level. I had a short session at the controls (the Moth was built as a trainer with dual controls) but was happy to leave the real flying to the expert. We went low over the Derwent Dams in the Peak District of Derbyshire, the training run for the Dambusters squadron. It was all too easy to imagine the raw courage that spurred on Guy Gibson and his men as they flew in the mighty Lancaster bombers, sixty feet above the dams, with the hills close in on both sides, precious little room to manoeuvre and murderous flak coming from the towers.
If anyone’s interested in flying a Tiger Moth for themselves, try www.deltaaviation.co.uk.
Here are some pictures. We’re at Netherthorpe Airfield, which, for history buffs, was a secret WW11 airfield, flying Lysanders taking SOE agents on missions to occupied Europe.
Click on thumbnails for larger image
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Copyright © Dolores Gordon-Smith 2007