How I Write

Straight onto a computer. I used to write everything in longhand and then type it, but I’ve retrained my brain to think through my fingers instead of a pen. It’s great, except when a crash happens. I’ve learned to back up very frequently. In fact I am so paranoid about losing stuff that I have a spare hard drive too. It’s time and money well spent.

Writing, for me, is the ultimate pleasure. I get really crabby if I can’t write for a while. I used to be very undisciplined about it (having small children made putting off sitting down to write a book a whole lot easier), but I’m much better now that my kids are grown-up. On writing days I’ll have a good breakfast (actually I have a good breakfast most days—who am I kidding?). Boiled egg, superfood smoothie, rye cracker with butter and marmite, and a cup of lemon tea. Then I’ll commute upstairs to my office with a pint of water, put the ‘Do not disturb under any circumstances—yes this means YOU!’ notice on the door, and switch on the computer. The notice works on everyone except my mum, for some reason.

If I am writing a novel or something like a book of myths or stories, usually the first thing I do is go over what I have written the day before and make changes where I need to. I find fiddling about like this gets my head into the book again, and switches on the characters’ voices. I tend to have a synopsis, or a plan of some kind, but it’s mostly quite sketchy and liable to change as I get further into the book. Sometimes I have quite a detailed plan of what I want to do, and then it all goes to pot because the character refuses to do what I want and goes off in a different direction altogether. This can be massively rewarding, or very annoying indeed, depending on my mood. I’ll write for a few hours (I never know how much time has passed if things are going well), then have something to eat and a short afternoon nap—something I learned to do when I lived in Spain—and then write again until late in the evening, when I will make supper if I’m hungry, and then probably watch something dire on television. Reality tv is just perfect, and I can pretend it’s character research to make myself feel better about watching it.

I find the internet invaluable as a research tool, but I also like to have plenty of books to hand as well. Research was a big part of my myth books, especially putting the maps of Atticus’s and Coll’s journeys together, and I’ve also been doing a lot of research on Egypt for my new Cleopatra novels, which is very intriguing and exciting and I’m learning a lot about some new gods like Isis and Seth. The reason I wrote Atticus the way I did in the first place was because I was fascinated by the fact that all the Greek myths had a geographical location—a place where they really ‘happened’. Tracking all that down, and then putting the journey together in a logical order was a logistical nightmare. I have acres of research I just couldn’t use in the text, but I know it’s there in the background.


The same went for Coll—except there was less information around on places for Celtic myths, so I just had to find locations that fitted sometimes, as in the case of Broadsea Bay. There’s a place there called Kemp’s Fort, just west of Stranraer, where there are ruins which would have been a fortification in Coll’s time. I thought the real historical occupants probably wouldn’t mind me borrowing it.

Picture books are a bit different. Usually they strike unexpectedly, in the form of a line or an idea or an image. Then I’ll work on the text on and off until I am satisfied. Or I’ll have a brief for something an artist wants, and go from there. They really are the most difficult thing of all to write, because every word has to resonate and count, and you only have 32 pages at most. When one works it is hugely satisfying, though, especially when you see how the artist has complemented your text, sometimes bringing out something you didn’t even realise was there. A good picture book partnership with an artist is worth everything.

Poetry has always been about fun for me. I can and do make up limericks on the spur of the moment for friends and family. I love writing poems for children, and I probably don’t do enough of that right now. I especially like writing cautionary tales à la Hilaire Belloc. My adult poetry is private and just for me, no one else, so I can write what I like in whatever way I like.


I’ve had writer’s block really badly just once, after I’d had four back operations in a short space of time and was full of anaesthetics and painkillers. It lasted for almost a year, and was quite horrible. The only advice I can offer is not to force it, not to despair (though I almost did), and to believe that there is writing life at the end of the tunnel. I did find the Creative Writing Coursebook (see Favourite Reads) really helpful in getting me going again, because I wasn’t working to a deadline, didn’t have to do it, and could treat it as a simple exercise, which I could throw in the bin if I felt like it. What writer’s block is not is having a day when you stare at the screen, write a few forced words and then can’t think where your book is going next. If this happens, just go away and do something else, and let your brain have some dreaming time. The creative urge will come back, I promise.

Writing is the bit of my life where I live in my head. I truthfully have no idea how my brain comes up with stuff. I’m just glad and grateful that it does. And that people seem to like it so far.